Israel remains on the sidelines as the ‘you’re with us or against us’ equation is recalibrated by the kingdom – which has abandoned the anti-Iran bloc and now seeks to independently plan and execute policies that could change the face of the Middle East
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s chief venue for international arts and entertainment, is offering a plethora of activities on its famous promenade this month. The Andy Warhol exhibition might have ended three days ago, but you can still spend $350 on VIP tickets to the WWE championship, see the Cirque du Soleil, explore the “City of Horror,” dive, dine and shop the expensive boutiques.
The most boring event of them all will take place on Friday: the Arab League summit. Although key decisions were already made at a League meeting of foreign ministers earlier this week, Jeddah is festooned with flags ahead of the summit and the Ritz-Carlton has been reserved exclusively for conferences. The stage is set for the arrival of veteran star Bashar al-Assad. Twelve years after he was expelled from the league following reports that he had ordered the killing of Syrian civilians, the Syrian president will attend Friday’s summit on invitation from Saudi King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, Assad would tweet about mediation efforts between Arab and Western leaders while continuing to commit atrocities – leaving millions of Syrians homeless, internally displaced, or seeking refuge in other countries. From Russian peace proposals, UN resolutions to international sanctions, Assad wouldn’t budge, and remains the only Arab leader to have survived the Arab Spring. After watching Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and other Arab leaders be ousted or killed, Assad not only continues to rule Syria, but has managed to regain most of the territory lost in the last decade.
Assad’s return to the Arab League comes as no great surprise. Talks about ending the boycott began in 2018, when the United Arab Emirates decided to renew diplomatic relations with Syria. But there were still too many countries opposed to the idea, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and, of course, the United States – which warned Abu Dhabi against any further tightening of ties. The Trump administration approved the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, imposing sanctions not only on Syria but on any country or business that does business with the regime, making cozying up to Syria too dangerous for America’s allies.
The sanctions are still in force, but the Saudis have decided to normalize ties with Damascus anyway, and are even ready to discuss economic cooperation. The undertaking came almost hand-in-hand with another, more dramatic development in the kingdom: the restoration of bilateral relations with Iran via Chinese mediation.
Saudi analysts close to the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have warned that the White House’s cold attitude toward the prince would force him to find new partners. President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom in July 2022 didn’t change much: Riyadh briefly complied with Biden’s request to step up its oil production to make up for the shortage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but insulted Washington three months later by refraining from blocking an OPEC decision to cut oil production quotas.
Biden issued warnings, but the Saudis weren’t alarmed. When Chinese President Xi Jinping was received with royal honors at Al-Yamama Palace in Riyadh three months later, Washington wasn’t shocked. Saudi Arabia hasn’t hidden its recent diplomatic efforts from the U.S., nor has it asked for permission or considered U.S. concerns. As such, normalization with Syria is proceeding despite ongoing threats from the Biden administration, including a bill calling for additional sanctions on those aiding the Assad regime.
The kingdom’s new role
It’s clear Saudi Arabia has adopted a new Middle East strategy in which it’s no longer subject to coalitions built by other countries. Saudi Arabia will now independently initiate, plan and execute policies that could change the face of the region. Even before restoring ties with Iran, the kingdom began resetting its relations with Turkey – whose president had led an international campaign against it following the Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul – giving billions to help Erdogan cope with Turkey’s economic crisis.
Although normalization with Syria is seen as Saudi Arabia’s contribution to renewing ties with Iran, it’s part and parcel of this new strategy, which seeks to put an end to war and tension throughout the Middle East.
Rather than continuing to lead an anti-Iran coalition, Bin Salman wants to create a balance of deterrence which will require Iran to coordinate its policies with Arab countries – especially Saudi Arabia – in exchange for political benefits granted by the kingdom.
For Iran, renewed relations with Saudi Arabia and Syria’s return to the fold are important achievements. These developments give both Tehran and Damascus a degree of legitimacy in the Arab world which will eventually result in international legitimacy. Simultaneously, it could give the Saudis the power to end the political and economic crisis in Lebanon and the eight-year-old war in Yemen. The next big step would be renewing Egyptian-Iranian relations.
According to remarks made by senior Iranian officials, including Fada Hossein Maleki, a member of the Supreme National Security Council, Iran and Saudi Arabia held talks in Baghdad in March and are expected to meet again in July. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently said he expected a breakthrough in Egyptian relations, and Iranian analysts are already talking about a possible meeting between President Ebrahim Raisi and his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Cairo, who has yet to comment on the reports, was unlikely to risk holding such a meeting until the Saudis paved the way.
For Israel, this isn’t exactly great news. Not only is the anti-Iran coalition crumbling before its eyes, but the traditional binary approach that said pro-U.S. countries could not partner with Iran is also falling by the wayside. The equation “you’re with us, or you’re against us” is being recalibrated, not by Israel, but by the Saudis – whom Israel still hopes to bring into the Abraham Accords.
The Saudi’s new Middle East strategy is also likely to restrict Israel’s freedom of operation in Syria. Now a member of the Arab League, about to renew relations with Turkey and still enjoying Russian backing – Syria may be able to mobilize its new friends to end Israeli operations in its territory. Such a demand could garner significant support should normalization talks with Turkey continue, which would require Ankara withdraw its forces from Syria.
Turkey isn’t in need of Saudi encouragement to renew ties with the Assad regime. Both Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who will be vying against each other in a run-off election on May 28, want the approximately 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey sent back home. If they were welcome at the start of the Syrian civil war, they have gradually become not only a heavy economic burden for taxpayers and the government but also a political hot potato and the target of xenophobia.
“I am announcing here: I will send all refugees back home once I am elected as president, period,” Kilicdaroglu declared on Thursday, using particularly harsh rhetoric to appeal to the nationalist voters he’s courting. For his part, Erodgan has spoken for over a year of his intention to send at least one million refugees back to Syria to alleviate Turkey’s economic crisis.
For this to happen, Ankara will have to renew ties with Assad, who will demand generous aid to help absorb returning refugees. But Turkey doesn’t have the kind of money Assad needs, and as Iranian lawmakers demand their government recover the $20 billion Syria owes it – who will write Assad the checks? Western countries are in no hurry to do such a thing, leaving only Gulf nations – primarily Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to sweep in, front the bill and close yet another rift in the region.