Syria seeks a new twist in Middle East geopolitics | Atalayar
Syria launches a strategy to gain influence in the Middle East.
The situation in the Middle East is atypical for the region. Constant instability has been replaced – at least temporarily and partially – by an optimism that is spreading to neighbouring countries. The foundation stone for reconstruction was laid by China, sponsoring the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran after seven years of blockade. The geopolitical dominoes pushed their next move when Riyadh did the same with Syria, ending a decade-long rift. And it is now Bashar al-Assad’s country that wants to continue this reconfiguration of the Middle East chessboard and return to the Arab League, but not before re-establishing diplomatic ties with some key players.
This is how the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mikdad, expressed his country’s intention to regain ground in the Middle East. They want to seize the moment as, for the first time in a while, several neighbouring countries have been open to the possibility of re-establishing ties with Damascus. Mikdad said on his last visit to Algeria that restoring Syria’s ties with neighbouring states is one of the best ways to make international cooperation ‘beneficial’. However, he did not shy away from acknowledging that, for the time being, there are “differences” that make it difficult to strengthen Syria’s relations with some countries.
The “cordial” meeting with Abdelmajdid Tebboune “demonstrates the depth of relations between two brotherly countries”. It is one of the factors that the Syrian government wants to use to reach out to others, although it will not be so easy. It is not with the Algerians that Damascus faces one of the challenges. Its closeness to Russia did not favour the re-establishment of policies with countries much closer to the US or Europe, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates being two of the most important. However, new movements across the region may have left Syria in an ideal situation.
In any other context, Bashar al-Assad might not be open to compromise on certain issues in order to win back allies in the region. However, the fact that China, a historic ally of the Syrian regime, has decided to put all its machinery to work to bring about a new landscape in the Middle East, has prompted al-Assad to do his part in a coordinated strategy between the two powers. The same is true for another of Syria’s key partners, Russia. The growing Russian and Chinese presence in the region is changing the international chessboard and seems to be sinking further eastwards.
Saudi Arabia, a key factor
What was once a difficult barrier to avoid, represented by Saudi Arabia, is now a path with great opportunities for all parties. The war in Yemen was one of the most complex points to undermine in Saudi-Iranian relations, but it seems that the Asian giant has managed to find a meeting point that allows a path of negotiation to be opened that was unthinkable until recently. Riyadh’s clashes with the Tehran-backed Houthi militias were constant, but this turn in relations has opened a key window of opportunity in the development of the conflict.
This is what the United Nations believes. The UN special envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, speaks of a “crucial juncture” in the goal of achieving peace. According to the diplomat, Yemen is currently in “the greatest period of relative calm so far in this ruinous war”. In the last eight years, “we have not seen such a serious opportunity to make progress towards ending the conflict,” Grundberg said. Ending the biggest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II would be the ultimate sign that change in the Middle East is as big as it is promising.
The first step between Syria and Saudi Arabia has already been taken. A decade later, and following reconciliation between the Iranians and Saudis, Al-Ekhbariya television’s morning news announced that ‘within the framework of the Kingdom’s willingness to facilitate the provision of necessary consular services between the two nations, talks are underway with Syrian officials to resume consular services’. Although in this case the mediation has been carried out by Russia, making it clear, once again, that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are very clear that the geopolitical strategy of their near future involves the Middle East.
Several gestures have confirmed the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria. The latest was Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan’s trip to the country’s capital, where he was received by President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian state broadcaster ORTAS reported a meeting between the Saudi minister and Syrian Presidency Minister Mansur Azam. Upon arrival, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said that this trip “comes within the framework of the Kingdom’s desire and interest in finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria that puts an end to all its repercussions and preserves Syria’s unity, security, stability and Arab identity, while reintegrating it into its Arab context in a way that benefits the brotherly people”.
This Saudi visit is in response to a visit to Riyadh by his counterpart Mikdad a few days ago. Mikdad’s visit was the first since the outbreak of the Syrian war that dynamited relations with Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman’s country sided with the pro-democrats in the misnamed ‘Arab Spring’, and diplomatic ties were severed until now. It is now that the Saudis have decided to take the lead in reintegrating Syria into regional politics and gaining a new partner to their ever-expanding portfolio of allies. Above all, it aims to advance Bashar al-Assad’s fundamental goal of returning to the Arab League, which some countries are still reluctant to do.
Return to the Arab League
“Most Arab countries are now beginning to understand that the path of joint Arab action is the only one that preserves the dignity of Arabs, as well as the rights of Palestinians,” said Faisal Mikdad. The al-Assad government’s response to the demonstrations a decade ago led to his country’s expulsion from the Arab League in 2011. Since then, Damascus has seen its position in the Arab world undermined, something it believes is possible to change given the current situation.
That does not mean, however, that there are still many doubts within the organisation about its return. Last week, following the meeting between the Syrian and Saudi Foreign Ministers, Riyadh hosted a meeting at which Syria’s return to the Arab League was put on the table. Naturally, there are major disagreements, with Qatar being the main opponent of Syria’s return. Indeed, Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abderrahman bin Yassim claimed – before the meeting – that Damascus’ reconciliation with Arab countries was just “speculation”. Above all, he called for a “political breakthrough or a political solution to the crisis” in the country.
Doha maintains that “there were reasons to suspend Syria’s membership and to boycott the Syrian regime at that time”. They consider that there have been no substantial changes in the country to suggest a return, at least for the time being. “These reasons still exist, at least for the state of Qatar, as the Syrian people are still displaced and innocent people are still in prison,” Yassim says. Qatar’s tough stance clashes with Saudi intentions, which, as hosts of the upcoming Arab League summit scheduled for 19 May in Riyadh, intend to address Syria’s return to the organisation. And the hope is that Qatar will follow the line it has taken with Bahrain, with whom it has re-established diplomatic relations, and give in to Syria’s re-entry.
In the face of Qatar’s opposition, not only Saudi Arabia, but also Turkey, are backing the country. The earthquake that devastated both countries on 6 February has forced them to collaborate. Whether because of the earthquake or because of the domino effect in the region, Ankara and Damascus reopened their embassies – announced on the same day that Saudi Arabia and Iran re-established diplomatic relations – which had been closed since the outbreak of the war in Syria. And this is where, as usual in these situations, a mediating country, in this case Iran, steps in. The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s senior advisor, Ali Asgar Jaji, held a meeting with the Turkish deputy Foreign Minister, Burak Akçapar, in which he expressed Iran’s willingness to contribute to the geopolitical turnaround in the region.
Reshaping the Middle East
Changes in the Middle East are taking place in a way that is as forceful as it is surprising. The turn between Saudi Arabia and Iran began a wave of change that, despite having its protagonists on the ground, sees its architects far from it. With the exception of Iran and its recently mentioned intention to mediate between Turkey and Syria, the other two major drivers of this diplomatic reconfiguration are outside the Middle East. Russia and China are clear that now is the time to fish in troubled waters, and while in Europe they view the war between Kiev and Moscow with concern, the Russians are acting in coordination with China to gain a foothold in a strategically key position.
Xi Jinping, aware of the importance of the Middle East in his long-term plan, has long been building good relations with the countries of the region, or at least trying to do so. While it is true that some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have a long history of relations with the United States, recent events show that in these cases nothing is forever. In fact, Mohammed bin Salman has distanced himself somewhat from Washington in recent months, which has left a noticeable unease in the White House. Riyadh believes that the Russian and Chinese presence, and a good relationship with Iran, can strengthen the country’s security, something that its greatest ally in this area, the United States, does not seem to be able to do indefinitely.
It is precisely this thinking that has pushed the crown prince to seek this shift in his foreign policy. Without sidelining the Americans, the reality is that the rapprochement, given the current context of the World Order, is a great opportunity to secure an alliance with two of the great powers. And it is in large part this context that has led experts to point to Riyadh as the main driver of Syria’s return to the political scene in the Arab world. If it succeeds, Syria would not only be one more ally, but would also confirm the process of global cohesion underway in the Gulf.
There are still several barriers to this, such as the aforementioned Qatari reluctance to Syria’s entry into the Arab League or the prior ‘reform of relations’ that Mikdad speaks of. What seems clear is that since the re-establishment of relations between Saudi Arabia and its Iranian nemesis, a period of optimism has opened up in one of the world’s most traditionally unstable regions. The Middle East is facing a moment that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago, and which Syria wants to take advantage of to regain the ground it has lost over the last decade and give a new twist to the geopolitics of the international chessboard.