A red carpet was unrolled on the tarmac at Damascus International Airport on Sunday to welcome Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the first Arab head of state to visit Syria since the outbreak of the rebellion that turned into a nationwide conflict in March 2011. Pro-government media outlets trumpeted the news, with the hashtag: “More are yet to come.”
Welcoming him was President Bashar al-Assad, who Bashir had called on to step down eight years ago. The visit raised eyebrows both within government circles and among the Syrian opposition, with speculation about its timing, content and potential outcomes.
A Saudi envoy?
Three years ago, Bashir broke ties with Iran, which backs Assad, firmly aligning himself with the Saudi regional camp. And his rhetoric in recent years has echoed the prevailing Arab stance toward the Syrian president.
“Bashar al-Assad won’t leave; he will get killed,” Bashir declared in March 2014.
Two years later, in April 2016, he thundered: “My patience is running out regarding the killing of civilians in Aleppo. If it doesn’t stop, we will send an army [to halt it].” Assad, he said, “has been warned.”
Sudan’s ties with Iran, and by extension its ties with Syria, became particularly sour after Bashir sent his air force to join the Saudi-led war in Yemen in March 2015. He went on to officially sever ties with Tehran a year later.
In October 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who is known as MBS, rewarded Sudan, using his pre-Khashoggi influence in Washington to get the US sanctions on the African nation lifted and have Sudan removed from President Donald Trump’s infamous travel ban.
Many observers believe Bashir came to Damascus carrying a goodwill message from Saudi Arabia.
Syrian-Gulf relations have been steadily improving since September, when the Syrian and Bahraini foreign ministers exchanged a warm embrace at the United Nations.
Speaking from the studios of the Saudi channel Al-Arabiya, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Ahmad al-Khalifa justified the encounter.
“What’s happening in Syria concerns us more than anybody else in the world. Syria is an Arab country, after all. It is not right for its affairs to be handled by regional and international players in our absence.”
He was referring to the rising influence of Iran and Turkey in Syrian affairs at the expense of Arab states that severed diplomatic relations with Damascus in 2011. Gulf states are seemingly recalculating their positions on Syria now that it has become evident that Assad is going nowhere.
The decision to reach out to Assad echoes what MBS did earlier with Iraq, when he reached out to more nationalist Shiite politicians Muqtada al-Sadr, Ammar al-Hakim, and the former prime minister Haidar Abadi, seeking to draw them closer to the Gulf orbit. Boycotting them – as the Saudis had done since 2003 – had clearly not worked. On the contrary, it only added to Iranian influence in Iraq, prompting MBS to try a totally new approach, based on positive engagement. The same is now happening in Syria.
From a ‘regime’ to a ‘government’
MBS has quietly distanced himself from the “regime change” scenario that started under his uncle, King Abdullah, back in 2011. The Saudi-backed Higher Negotiations Committee, an assortment of Syrian opposition figures, has all but disappeared, its funding slashed by the kingdom.
The Bahraini foreign minister, a close ally of the Saudis, recently refused to use the derogatory term “regime” to describe the authorities in Damascus, saying, “We deal with governments, even if we disagree with them, and not with those wanting to bring down those governments.” He then spoke of the need for Syria to re-assert control over its entire territory, which is seen as a green light from the Arab Gulf to eradicate what remains of opposition elements throughout the country.
Then came a visit by a Kuwaiti delegation to Damascus, chaired by Subah Mohammad, a prominent media figure. They met with Assad and published an interview in the popular Kuwaiti daily Shahed, describing him as a “brave Arab leader.” He reciprocated, showering the emir of Kuwait with praise, hailing his “wisdom.”
Wealthy Gulf countries have been seeking to play a more active role in Syria, while Damascus wants them to take part in the reconstruction process – a win-win agreement, coming at the expense of the Syrian opposition, which had relied heavily on Arab backing in their quest to topple Assad.
There are unconfirmed reports about the United Arab Emirates planning to reopen its embassy in Damascus after roadblocks surrounding the premises were lifted in August.
The Syrian-Jordanian border was recently reopened, and so was the Hashemite Kingdom’s embassy in Damascus. Like Sudan, Jordan is an ally of Saudi Arabia and a partner in the war on Yemen.
Now comes the Bashir visit to Syria, amidst reports that the Arab League is planning to invite Assad to attend the upcoming Arab Summit in Tunisia, scheduled for next March. Syria’s membership had been suspended at the urging of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with its seat being temporarily given to the opposition during the Doha Summit in 2013.
Bashir has seemingly agreed to play the postman between Damascus and Saudi Arabia, realizing how much times have changed in the international community. The United States Senate in recent days passed a resolution calling for an end to American support for the war in Yemen, and another assigning blame to the Saudi crown prince for the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Bashir, who came to power through a military coup and clung onto it for three solid decades, is accustomed to changing winds in the Arab world.
When the Arab uprisings started in Tunisia, Bashir was distracted by problems at home and hampered by an International Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over his head for genocide and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. In January 2011, days before the outbreak of the Egyptian revolt, a referendum passed for the independence of southern Sudan, with many expecting a revolutionary spillover into Khartoum.
Bashir managed to survive all of the above, then took the decision to join the war in Yemen, before traveling to Russia for a meeting with Vladimir Putin in November 2017. He is now reaching out to the Russian president’s allies in Damascus, making himself useful once again in regional politics, scoring points with the Kremlin, Riyadh, and naturally Damascus.