Why Have Syria-Saudi Ties Improved Now?

By Ben Gilbert

BEIRUT - Seems that after three years of cold-shoulder treatment from regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, the air in Damascus just got a whole lot warmer.

Just over a year ago, relations between the Saudis and Syria were at an all-time low.

Riyadh refused to send a high-level envoy to the Arab League meeting in Damascus, an even bigger snub than Saudi Arabia's failure to fill their Damascus ambassador position after the previous one lapsed in February 2008.

The falling out between the two countries dates back to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was a dual Lebanese and Saudi citizen, in 2005. Syria was accused of the murder and, under intense regional and international pressure, withdrew its troops after occupying and largely running Lebanon since the end of the country's civil war in 1991. Damascus denies it had anything to do with Hariri's murder.

With the assassination, the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia implemented a policy of diplomatic isolation. The U.S. recalled its ambassador, accusing Syria of not only assassinating Hariri but of funding and helping insurgents in Iraq fight U.S. troops there. U.S. officials also derided Syria for helping Iran arm Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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But analysts say the Syrian and Saudi reconciliation is just the latest step in a regional thawing that began the day U.S. President Barak Obama was inaugurated. The administration's decision to change policy in favor of carrots over sticks has eased tensions in the region.

So is the Saudi-Syria thaw a case of a natural regional alliance righting itself, or is it a case of the gang being nice to the unpopular kid because the school bully deems him cool again? As always in the Middle East, it depends where you're coming from.

"The Saudi policy of isolating Syria that went on for many years was dependent on the U.S. doing the same," Paul Salem, director of Carnegie's Middle East Center, said. "Once it became clear that Obama would not pursue a policy of isolation, the Saudis could not isolate Syria by themselves."

The U.S. announced in late June that it would send an ambassador to Damascus.

On June 28, a Saudi prince, accompanied by the Saudi information minister - a former ambassador to Beirut - visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It followed two other meetings between high ranking Syrian and Saudi officials at summits in Kuwait and Doha in January and March of this year, after Israel's bombardment of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

On July 2, the Saudi media reported the kingdom would name an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in more than a year.

"We are reminding [the Syrians] of the natural links that we share," a Saudi royal adviser told the Wall Street Journal. "We have presented a way for them to get out of the hole that they have dug for themselves," alluding to Saudi Arabia's with alliance with Iran."

Before the Hariri assassination, Syria and Saudi Arabia had strong economic and political ties. After Syria's humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, and President George W. Bush's efforts to overturn the status quo in the region through sanctions (imposed on Syria in 2003) and force, the Syrians strengthened their ties with Iran.

As the rhetoric and tension increased between the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia and their Lebanese allies headed by Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son, on the one hand, and Syria and its Lebanese allies, led by Hezbollah, on the other, Lebanon suffered. An Israeli bombardment, clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, and numerous assassinations wracked Lebanon from 2005 to 2008.

Salem says that with engagement, Syria has returned to its pre-2005 role in the Levant as a "bridge, a cementer."

"That's a renewal of its role in the region," he said. "If you can get Syria, Saudi, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf under a bit of an American umbrella, that's quite significant, and that's happening."

But Salem says that doesn't mean that Syria is going to get break its relationship with Iran anytime soon, or with Hezbollah or Hamas. Nor is the U.S. going to loosen or end sanctions.

"Breaking Syria away from Iran is not the point," he said. "But alongside the Syrian and Iranian relationship you have recreated a very important set of new or renewed relationships in and around Syria which are very valuable to Syria and will definitely influence their decision making."

Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst and the editor in chief of the Damascus-based Forward Magazine, says the Syrians will be willing to work with all sides in Lebanon "provided there are some international guarantees."

"If they start using [Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri's] cabinet to talk about disarmament or to spread very loud anti-Syrian rhetoric from Beirut, then the Syrians won't accept it," he said. "But as long as the Syrians are told, ‘we all want to work together to get out of this mess,' then the Syrians are interested in cooperation, and a lot of that cooperation has to do with Saudi Arabia."

Michael Young, opinion editor at Beirut's Daily Star newspaper and the author of numerous articles critical of Syria's involvement in Lebanon, says the regional reconciliation is a positive step for Lebanon, but he feels many of the key issues in Lebanon haven't been addressed to significantly alter the rather unstable status quo.

"It doesn't resolve the issue of Hezbollah's weapons. It doesn't resolve the issue of what happens if there's war in southern Lebanon. Nor does it resolve the issue of what are Syria's intentions in Lebanon," Young said. "The [Syrians and Saudis] arrived at equilibrium, but have not fundamentally altered the fact that Syria would like to have a decisive say in Lebanese affairs. And I think they believe that the Saudis are willing to give them much more than they are."

Moubayed feels the same about unsolved issues, just different ones. Syria has demanded the return of the occupied Golan Heights in exchange for any peace deal with Israel. Moubayed says peace talks should come soon on the heels of the new regional détente, before the renewed relationships begin to lose momentum.

"Engagement for the sake of engagement will be a wasted exercise," he said. "I think real pressure needs to be applied on [Israel Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu to give up occupied land. That is what the Syrians want. What they want from Obama is improved bilateral relations with the U.S., and a jump starting of the peace process."

A summit is rumored to be in the works between Saudi ruler King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad has also invited Obama to Damascus for direct talks. Obama accepted the invitation, but hasn't said whether he'll go, or if so, when. The U.S. first has to send an ambassador, scheduled to occur in the coming months. In the meantime, Lebanese are enjoying their most peaceful summer since 2005.

 

Ben Gilbert covers Lebanon for GlobalPost. Gilbert has been based in Lebanon since the July and August 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, reporting from Beirut, South Lebanon and Damascus.

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