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Source: Bloomberg

Apr 5, 2023

By Sam Dagher, Fiona MacDonald and Zainab Fattah

Saudi Arabia is leading efforts to formally bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab inner circle as early as next month, in what would be a win for Iran and Russia and in defiance of US warnings after more than a decade of conflict.

The kingdom is taking steps that would allow the Arab League grouping of regional states to end a suspension of Syria’s membership in time for a summit in Riyadh in mid-May, according to three people briefed by the Saudis and one person close to the United Arab Emirates government, which backs the plan. 

Those efforts are ongoing and could be stretched out or even fall through, or Arab leaders could settle on an interim plan next month, the people said. The US is aware of the push, has warned against it but has realized it can do little to stop it, several of the people said.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is eager to cast the kingdom as the Arab world’s uncontested political and economic leader.  Following last month’s surprise restoration of ties with Iran, Riyadh now wants to be at the forefront of initiatives to calm regional conflict zones like Syria and ensure nothing disrupts its ambitious efforts to transform its economy, the Saudi daily Okaz said in an Op-Ed last week. 

Even though the nearly 80-year-old Arab League holds relatively little heft in terms of global policymaking, the move would be of symbolic importance. A successful reconciliation of Syria would represent a blow to the influence of the US in the Middle East, and fortify a divide between the region and Western governments. 

Above all, it would be a major win for Iran, which has propped up the Syrian government with fighters, arms and cash and defended the Assad family, with whom it has been allied since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan may meet with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian in the coming days, according to Iranian media reports, nearly a month after the two countries agreed to resume relations in a China-brokered deal. 

The Saudi moves toward Syria were encouraged by Russia — the other major military ally of Assad during his war on domestic opponents — as President Vladimir Putin looks to strengthen his international support during his invasion of Ukraine.

The UAE and Saudi foreign ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment, though the Saudi minister Prince Faisal had said in the past that Syria’s status quo was unsustainable. Officials at the Cairo-based Arab League headquarters didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Qatar and Kuwait have opposed Syria being welcomed back into the Arab League. But it’s doubtful they’ll be able to push against the tide for too long, people briefed on the discussions said.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 following Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters at the start of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia joined regional states and the West in cutting ties at the time, backing opposition forces against his government, which was mainly defended by Iran and allied militias from Lebanon, Iraq and later Russia. 

China and Russia blocked attempts to sanction Assad at the UN Security Council, prompting the US and European Union to impose sweeping unilateral restrictions against Assad and his government.

‘Calming Effect’

While the US was caught off guard by the signing of the Iran-Saudi agreement in Beijing, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf recently welcomed the “calming effect” it may have on the region — particularly in respect of another regional war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia framed its intervention in Yemen in 2015 as putting an end to Iranian interference in the Arab world, and the following year the two countries severed ties after the Saudi mission in Tehran was attacked in response to Riyadh’s execution of a cleric belonging to its Shiite minority. 

“Anything that provides an enduring kind of détente in the tensions and confrontation that they have had over the course of years is a great thing and should have wider regional effects,” Leaf told reporters last week.

But many in Washington fear Saudi Arabia’s eagerness to pivot to China and Iran — in part to further the kingdom’s multi-trillion-dollar economic plans — may in some way harm US national-security interests in the region.

In Congressional testimony on March 23, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his department has warned US allies against normalization with Assad. And at a Syria-related meeting in Jordan last month attended by Saudi Arabia among others, the US and European nations suggested political concessions such as releasing prisoners and reining in the notorious secret police as preconditions for any engagement and normalization with Assad, according two people briefed on the meeting. 

A State Department spokesperson said diplomatic conversations were private but added any engagement with Syria should benefit the Syrian people “not the Assad regime.”

Several former top US officials who have served in the Middle East warned President Joe Biden and Blinken in a letter last week that not being more forceful in blocking Arab normalization with Assad was “short-sighted and damaging to any hope for regional security and stability.” 

Missile Attacks

The funeral procession for two of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers killed in Syria, on April 4.

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Since the Iran-Saudi deal, the US has blamed forces backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of drone and missile attacks on US sites in northeast Syria that have killed one US contractor and severely wounded several soldiers.

And over the past week, Iran and the Assad government have accused Israel of carrying out multiple attacks inside Syria that have killed two IRGC officers and two civilians and wounded Syrian soldiers.

While Assad holds most of Syria with the support of Iran and Russia, US-backed Kurdish forces control the northeast, where the US has about 900 soldiers.

Much of the north and northwest, which was hit hard in February’s earthquake across Syria and Turkey, is in the hands of rebel forces backed by Ankara. Turkey is seeking its own Iran- and Russia-facilitated rapprochement with Assad to curb Syria’s Kurds.

Iran’s ultimate goal is US withdrawal — not just from Syria but the entire Middle East — said Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. 

The normalization with Saudi Arabia, traditionally America’s main ally in the region, reinforces “Tehran’s view that both militarily and diplomatically we’ve entered a post-American Middle East,” he said.

With assistance by Patrick Sykes

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