By Santiago Vera García*
Syria and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen their embassies after severing diplomatic relations more than a decade ago, a step that would mark a leap forward in Damascus’ return to the Arab League and the normalization of Syria’s relations with its neighbors.
Contacts between Riyadh and Damascus have gained momentum following the historic agreement pushed by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a key ally of the Syrian president, who agreed to restore diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and consulates in their respective territories.
Restoring ties between Riyadh and Damascus would mark the most significant development so far in moves by Arab states to normalize ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He was shunned and severely criticized by many Western and Arab states after the Syrian Civil War began between late 2011 and early 2012.
Additionally, Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 in response to al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters.
The two governments are “preparing to reopen embassies after Eid al-Fitr,” a Muslim holiday in the second half of April that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
According to sources quoted by Reuters, the decision was reportedly the result of talks in Saudi Arabia with a senior Syrian intelligence official.
According to Saudi diplomatic sources, the senior Syrian intelligence official “stayed for days” in Riyadh and agreed to reopen the embassies “very soon.”
One of the regional sources identified the Syrian official as Hussam Louqa, who heads his country’s intelligence committee, and said the talks also included security on Syria’s border with Jordan and the smuggling of Captagon, an amphetamine for which there is a thriving market in the Gulf.
Although not officially confirmed, it has been reported in international media that Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president and head of the feared Fourth Armored Division, visited Saudi Arabia early last week and received the kingdom’s conditions for normalization.
Speaking anonymously, a Syrian official told Middle East Eye that the situation was progressing toward normalization.
“The Saudi deal with Iran is another obstacle out of the way of further engagement. Saudi Arabia is a central Arab state,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, said earlier this month that further engagement with Syria could pave the way for Damascus’ return to the Arab League during the bloc’s next summit, planned for April this year.
“Engagement is needed to address these concerns. And that may eventually lead to Syria’s return to the Arab League,” he asserted.
The United States and several regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had backed some Syrian rebels in their effort to topple al-Assad.
However, with the help of Iran and Russia, the Syrian president has successfully defeated the insurgency in most of Syria.
Due to the heavy repression and brutality of al-Assad’s government during the conflict, which has been accused of using chemical weapons against its population, the United States opposes moves by regional countries to normalize ties with the current Syrian president.
Nevertheless, in a show of national autonomy, Gulf countries are initiating processes that will culminate in normalization with al-Assad.
In particular, the United Arab Emirates, a strategic partner of the United States, is leading the way in this process.
Last week, the Syrian president, accompanied by his wife, visited the Emirates, marking al-Assad’s second visit to the Gulf in less than two months, having headed to Oman last month.
State media showed how Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan received the Syrian president on his arrival in Abu Dhabi, whose plane was met by Emirati fighter jets.
“We held constructive talks aimed at developing relations between our two countries,” Sheikh Mohammed later said on his official Twitter account. “Our discussions also explored ways to enhance cooperation to accelerate stability and progress in Syria and the region.”
The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, arguing that Arab countries need more presence if they genuinely want to resolve the Syrian conflict.
In the wake of two massive earthquakes in Turkey that killed more than 6,000 people in neighboring Syria on Feb. 6, a Saudi plane carrying aid landed at Aleppo airport last month with food and medical equipment, the first such flight in 11 years.
At the time, Saudi officials at the airport said that the operation “was carried out on the direct orders of King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
*Advanced student of International Relations at Universidad Austral, researching political, economic, and strategic issues in the Middle East and North Africa.
With information from LGI