Echoes of Taif: Syria and Saudi Arabia reconcile

The Cradle, April 16, 2023 —

Syria-Saudi relations leap forward with joint statements, bilateral meetings, and, for the first time in 12 years, a shared vision for resolving the crisis in Syria.

During his visit to Moscow in mid-March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that Saudi Arabia no longer seeks to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs and has ended support of armed opposition militias.

In the same Russia Today interview, Assad declared his refusal to meet with Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan without the withdraw of Turkish military forces from the lands it occupies in Syria.

These two statements clearly underline Damascus’ policy approach to “reconciliations” taking place across West Asia. Assad’s change in stance towards Saudi Arabia came only after Riyadh completely withdrew its military presence from Syria.

Notably, rapprochement efforts took a big leap forward two days ago when the Saudis, for the first time since the Syrian war’s onset, received Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Riyadh.

Failed regime change plans

Since 2012, the Saudis had taken the lead in regional and international efforts to arm Syrian opposition groups across the spectrum, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and al-Qaeda.

This sensitive information was disclosed by former Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani during an interview on the Kuwaiti Al-Qabas channel in May 2022, as he sought to distance Doha from the NATO-Persian Gulf alliance that financed and armed the Syrian conflict with the aim of overthrowing the government. 

Sheikh Hamad claimed that in 2011, the late Saudi King Abdullah asked Qatar to lead operations rooms to support the armed Syrian opposition and later that year, two operational centers were established in Jordan and Turkiye by the allied states to coordinate their efforts on multiple fronts.

Saudi Arabia was present in both centers, along with the US, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkiye. In 2012, after Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan was appointed to head Saudi intelligence, he personally took charge of the operation to overthrow President Assad.

As Sheikh Hamad describes, Prince Bandar drew up military plans to occupy Damascus and the Syrian presidential palace and requested an exorbitant amount of money — $2 trillion dollars.

Syria and its allies already had documented information about the role of Bandar bin Sultan in terror attacks on the Syrian capital between mid-2012 and mid-2013. The year-long campaign of intense bombing and armed assaults on Damascus did not succeed, and the alliance of states supporting Syrian militant groups began to acknowledge that regime change would not be as easy as anticipated.

Riyadh’s role in US occupation of Syria

The Saudi role started to diminish as the factions it backed suffered battlefield losses in central and southern Syria. This decline was not due to Riyadh’s desire to deescalate, but rather because of these losses.

The trend of defeats for the Saudi-backed factions stopped after the assassination of Zahran Alloush on 25 December, 2015). Alloush was the leader of the so-called “Jaysh al-Islam” in the Damascus countryside, a faction that was a Saudi spearhead directed towards the Syrian capital until it was eventually expelled by the Syrian army and its allies.

The defeats of the Saudi factions in Syria coincided with changes in the leadership in Riyadh led by the new crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS). MbS focused his country’s armaments and financial efforts on the war on Yemen.

However, this did not mean Saudi Arabia’s complete withdrawal from the Syrian conflict. To the east of the Euphrates River, Saudi oil money was spent on strengthening the presence of the US occupation army who continue to plunder the country’s oil wealth.

Thamer Al-Sabhanthe former Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, coordinated with both the US occupation forces and tribal sheiks in that region from 2017 to 2019. During that time, Saudi Arabia secured funds for a continued US presence in Syria.

The Saudi involvement in the north was revealed by then-US President Donald Trump in 2018, when he explicitly stated that Saudi Arabia was interested in his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria (a decision he later abandoned) and that it must pay for the continuation of the occupation – which it did.

Furthermore, MbS had previously stated before that the US should remain in Syria for a long time to counter Iranian efforts in West Asia.

Shift toward diplomacy with Damascus

After Trump left the White House in 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated a reconciliation process between Damascus and Riyadh. MbS came to the conviction that investing in the Syrian war was no longer feasible for his country, as he discovered the limits of his power – first in Yemen, second in Syria, and third against Iran. He started negotiations with the latter in Iraq and Oman, before agreeing to the China-brokered normalization deal with Tehran.

Riyadh resumed security talks with Damascus in 2022, but without fully restoring their political relationship. Saudi Arabia initiated the policy of “zero problems” after failing to achieve political changes through military means and realizing that its continued hostility with its neighbors undermined its major economic and tourism projects under MbS’ Vision 2030.

Indeed, Riyadh has taken positive steps towards Damascus, most notably in humanitarian support following the February 6, 2023 deadly earthquake, in addition to “undeclared Saudi support” that reached the Syrian state, according to The Cradle’s political sources close to Damascus and others close to Riyadh.

But for Syria, the closing statement of the joint Syrian-Saudi meeting in Jeddah – following the visit of the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on 12 April – are what Damascus has sought since the beginning of the war: to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that preserves Syria’s unity, security, and stability, and ensure the Arab identity of the state and its territorial integrity.

Finding a political settlement

The joint Syrian-Saudi statement on Syrian territorial integrity stands in stark contrast to US policy, which actively supports separatist Kurdish forces in eastern Syria.

The joint statement also highlighted that the two sides discussed necessary steps to achieve “a comprehensive political settlement to the Syrian crisis that ends all its repercussions.”

The use of the term “repercussions” indicates that all the political and territorial changes caused by the Syrian war are on the negotiating table, and must be tackled in order to achieve a comprehensive political settlement.

This alignment of Riyadh and Damascus’ vision for resolving the crisis is a major turning point in Saudi policy towards the Syrian crisis, as it places Saudi Arabia on the same side as Syria in seeking a resolution to the conflict.

Syria’s approach to Arab League return

The return of Syria to the Arab League is not seen as a primary objective by Damascus, as Assad made clear during his interview with RT. The president instead emphasized his priority of restoring bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia as the first stage of Syrian reintegration into the region.

Syrian sources affirm that Damascus considers its return to the Arab League as an inevitable outcome of normalizing relations with other Arab countries.

The Jeddah statement did not, however, mention specific political solutions that have been previously proposed by peacemakers in Geneva and Astana, or in UN Resolution 2254.

Instead, it emphasized addressing the “repercussions” of the crisis and ending the presence of “armed militias and external interference,” which mirrors the Syria approach to resolving the conflict.

Mekdad’s visit to Jeddah – a mere two days before the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to discuss the issue of Syria’s return to the League of Arab States – has slammed the door shut on those who oppose it.

The re-established “hotline” between Damascus and Riyadh, which has helped to prevent regional crises in the past, indicates the willingness of both parties to reduce tension in the region and find common solutions, reminiscent of the Taif Agreement in 1989, which brought an end to the Lebanese civil war.

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