Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman waves as he meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 11, 2017. Photo: Bandar Algaloud / Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court / Handout via Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, seen in a file pic from April 2017, has never met Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Bandar Algaloud / Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court / Handout via Reuters

On the eve of Easter Sunday, Russian presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev arrived in Damascus to deliver a message. Coming from Riyadh, where Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is dominating policy, President Putin’s representative was carrying a “positive” message from the kingdom, whose contents are yet to be revealed. According to analysts and websites close to the government in Damascus, the Saudis are willing to re-engage politically with Syria.

The Saudi gesture came days after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Syria via Ankara, also suggesting a normalization of ties, this time with Turkey – a rival axis. 

Syria hosts three main zones of influence following the collapse of the physical Islamic State caliphate.

Turkish forces and their proxies have occupied a northern strip of Syrian territory along the mutual border, while US-backed Kurdish forces have swathes of northeastern Syria during their fight against Islamic State, and Russian personnel and Iranian-backed forces hold sway in regions controlled by the government.

For Ibrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor at the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, a clear competition for influence is emerging between the Russians and the Iranians.

“Each of them is aiming for a bigger say in the decision-making process in Damascus,” Hamidi told Asia Times, commenting on the dual initiatives, adding: “Either Russia will take charge of the regime’s rehabilitation and re-legitimization, or the Iranians will do it.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is strongly allied to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and in recent months he has sought to revive the 1998 Syrian-Turkish Adana Agreement between Damascus and Ankara. That agreement had cemented Syrian authority over its side of the joint border but gave the Turks the right to cross into Syrian territory in pursuit of Kurdish militias should the Syrians fail to do the job themselves.

Under this agreement, Damascus must be informed before such an operation happens, and the Turks cannot stay indefinitely inside Syrian territory. As such, it would present a way for Syria to end the current occupation of its territory by Turkey.

Putin has proposed deploying  Russian military police to assuage Turkish security concerns, namely that the border will be free from Kurdish militia. This would mirror an accord in southern Syria, where Russian personnel are deployed to assuage Israeli security concerns — about Hezbollah. 

For Adana II to see the light, it would require joint military committees between Turkey and Syria, an open line of communication, counter-terrorism cooperation, and an exchange of embassies. Ankara has previously expressed its willingness to revisit the agreement after the municipal elections of March 31.

The Arab orbit

Given Ankara’s tacit relationship with Iran on one front, and with the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, the very thought of a restored Turkish diplomatic presence in Damascus has sent shivers down the spines of Saudi royals.

Since coming to power in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been steadily distancing himself from any Syrian interventionism, blaming previous mishaps on the administration of his uncle, King Abdullah. It was, after all, the late Abdullah who withdrew his ambassador from Damascus in 2012, suspended diplomatic relations and called on Bashar al-Assad to step down. From 2012 to 2015, he generously bankrolled the Syrian armed opposition, providing them with cash and arms.

All of that came to a quick end with the ascent of King Salman in January 2015. Political and military support for the Syrian opposition began to dry up, especially after the 2017 spat with Qatar, who for years had been sponsoring the lion’s share of opposition activity.

The Saudis nudged their ally, the recently-overthrown Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, to visit Damascus last December. Days later, the United Arab Emirates, a staunch Saudi ally, and Bahrain, whose monarchy follows Saudi policy, re-opened their embassies in Damascus.

The Bahraini move came shortly after its foreign minister, Khalifa Bin Ahmad, had warmly embraced his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Mouallem at the United Nations in September 2018. Similar gestures were made by the Kuwaitis, as well as Jordan, which re-opened its embassy in Damascus along with its borders and last March received the Syrian parliamentary speaker in Amman.

None of these steps would have happened had the Saudis been opposed to them.

US spoiler role

The collective Arab rapprochement with Damascus came to an abrupt halt in January, reportedly under pressure from the United States. But while Washington seeks to pressure Iran, its pressure on Arab states appears to have had the reverse effect. None of the Arab states have been able, or allowed, to address Syria’s ongoing fuel crisis, prompting Assad to travel to Tehran in February and sign a series of economic agreements, one of which is meant to provide gasoline and fuel.

That visit, the Syrian president’s first to Tehran since the outbreak of conflict in 2011, launched an unprecedented period of warmth between the two countries. This clearly raised red flags in Arab capitals, who quickly decided to re-engage with Damascus, against all odds.

The Iranians were getting the upper hand with economics, and now, with services as well, while Iran’s Turkish allies were still in control of entire villages and towns in the Syrian north. Meanwhile, the Russians were in firm control of the country’s battlefield and peace process, leaving very little room — if any — for the Arab states in Syria’s future.

With that in mind, the Saudis are reaching out today, before any rapprochement is started with the Turks.

The Syrians, for their part, would prefer mending broken fences with the Saudis rather than the Turks.

The Saudis do not illegally occupy Syrian territory, while the Turks have established an occupation zone across the north and have stated their intention to march deeper into Aleppo province, as well as east of the Euphrates River. It is much easier to work with a hostile country like Saudi Arabia than an occupying state like Turkey.

Personalities also come into play. The Turkish president was a good friend of Assad before calling for the overthrow of his government and supporting armed opposition factions and jihadist movements. Meeting Erdogan, let alone shaking his hand or turning the page, would be extremely difficult.

In contrast, there is no personal history between Bashar al-Assad and Mohammad Bin Salman. The two men have never met, and MBS was not personally responsible for the bloodshed in Syria.

While the Russians would support low-grade engagement between Syria and Turkey on a security and secondary governmental level, real progress can be made vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, which seems determined to prevent Turkish or Iranian influence from growing any stronger in Syria.

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