The agreement in March by Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore ties after nine years appears to mark a shift in regional diplomacy. While Riyadh and Tehran have been formally estranged since 2016, their rivalry goes back far longer and played out particularly violently across the Middle East in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Syria was one of several arenas impacted by the competition, so what might the détente mean for the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad?
Already, there are signs that Assad will be an immediate beneficiary of the reconciliation. It has been widely reported that Saudi Arabia will soon formally invite Assad to attend the Arab League Summit to be held in Riyadh in May. This would be the first time the Syrian dictator has been invited to return to the Arab League after he was suspended in 2011 following his crackdown on protestors at the start of Syria’s civil war. Until now Saudi Arabia has blocked Assad’s return and so the invitation would indicate the normalization of ties between Damascus and Riyadh and the formal end of Assad’s ostracization by the rest of the Arab World.
This move has been a long time coming. While most Arab states, except for its allies Lebanon and Iraq, plus Algeria, broke off ties with Assad during the civil war, many have edged towards normalization in recent years. Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and, especially, the UAE have re-established diplomatic links, with the latter lobbying others to follow its lead. Egypt has also softened its stance, with its foreign minister visiting Damascus for the first time since 2011 in February this year. Qatar is the outlier, opposed to Syria’s return to the Arab League, partly down to its closeness to Turkey, which also remains estranged from Damascus. Saudi Arabia, though, is the keystone. While it has gradually increased its contact with the Assad regime in recent years, including security chiefs meeting, the Iran deal has given new momentum to reconciliation.
In truth, Syria is low down the priority list for Saudi Arabia. For Riyadh, the deal with Iran is driven by more pressing concerns. First and foremost is the war in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia wants to extricate itself from and hopes that agreement with Iran will allow for an extension of the existing ceasefire and the beginning of a viable peace process between its Yemeni allies and the Tehran-backed Houthis. Secondly, there is a domestic dimension. Riyadh hopes to deescalate tensions in the Middle East more generally, reducing its commitments abroad and allowing it to focus on rebranding itself globally, including as a tourist destination. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) has invested considerable political capital in this rebranding and modernization and is seemingly looking to move on from the more confrontational regional politics of the past decade. That said, he will be conscious of a potential domestic backlash for normalizing with Assad too soon, hence the gradual warming of ties, one step at a time – most recently the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visiting Jeddah in April. MBS likely calculates that despite the Saudi public’s general distaste for Assad, they will swallow détente as a necessary evil to gain other benefits.
Finally, there is a geopolitical dimension. The Russia-Ukraine war has underlined the multi-polar reality of world politics and the end of the post-Cold War era of US dominance. Saudi Arabia has been diversifying its diplomatic ties for some time, moving away from its past over-reliance on the west, and showing a willingness to stand up to Washington’s demands. The Iran deal therefore serves two geopolitical goals. Firstly, being brokered by Beijing, which sees both Tehran and Riyadh as important regional partners, it further strengthens Saudi Arabia’s links with China. Secondly, by ending overt animosity with Iran it allows for closer links with Russia, should Saudi Arabia wish it, given the increased closeness of Tehran with Moscow in the fallout from first Syria and now Ukraine. Resetting ties with Iran is not a diplomatic revolution for Riyadh – it will remain close to the west – but it broadens Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical options in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Restoring ties with Syria, and welcoming it back to the Arab League, might therefore be used as an act of goodwill on Riyadh’s part to encourage Iran to give ground on other, more significant areas such as Yemen. It may anger Saudi’s western allies but Riyadh knows it is in a strong position, with the US and others wanting the Gulf states to produce more oil in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and unlikely to take serious action over ties with Assad.
That said, normalization and a return to the Arab League may by a symbolic victory for Assad but would transform little on the ground in Syria. Militarily, the Arab states have long ceased to have any real influence, with Saudi Arabia pulling its support for rebel groups in 2018. The external players of consequence holding Assad back from retaking all the territory he lost during the civil war are the US in the east and Turkey in the north, and neither will be impacted by Saudi-Syria normalization. The US continues to firmly oppose any reconciliation with Assad and maintains its support for Kurdish-dominated Syrian allies administering eastern Syria. Turkey, in contrast, is flirting with the idea of restoring ties with Damascus, potentially abandoning its Syrian rebel clients in the north, but this is primarily driven by internal Turkish politics and will not be impacted by Saudi’s decision.
The one external military power that might be influenced is Israel, which is alarmed at the Iranian-Saudi deal, fearing it may signal a loss of the tacit support from the Gulf states Israel has received for its confrontational stance with Tehran in recent years. Already striking Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria at will, Israel may step up this campaign even more to prevent Iran from taking advantage of an improved regional standing.
Economically, Assad and his foreign allies, Iran and Russia, may hope that normalization with the wealthy Gulf states will pave the way for much-needed reconstruction, but they may be disappointed. It is estimated that $400bn worth of investment is needed to return Syria to its 2011 levels of development, but few states have shown an interest in providing anything close to this. Even the UAE, which has enthusiastically called for Assad’s regional reintegration, has been reluctant, wary of the risk of further instability and also of falling foul of the US’ Caesar sanctions that punish any company or entity dealing with Assad. With these sanctions unlikely to be lifted, irrespective of Syria’s improved relations with its Arab neighbours, Gulf investment will likely remain cautious. Over time some investors, possibly the UAE, may begin to test whether Washington will actually impose punishments on its Gulf allies for dealing with Assad, but this will likely be incremental and slow rather than the sudden surge of investment Damascus needs and craves.
The Saudi-Iran deal then, may have only limited benefits for Assad. The symbolic victory of returning to the Arab league is huge: he can, rightly, claim that he has not given any ground while the other Arab states have been forced to climb down. But the areas that would really benefit his regime: an end to the military conflict, the departure of foreign forces and much needed large scale economic investment, will be unaffected by Riyadh and Tehran’s détente.