With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on his way to a fourth term in the Syrian presidential election held this week, Moscow is expected to resume its diplomatic push to normalize relations with Damascus and solidify Russian military gains in the Syrian conflict. At the core of this Russian strategy is a renewed rapprochement between states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Syrian regime, which was blocked by the Trump Administration in 2018. The question now is, how will the Biden Administration respond to this potential GCC embrace of Assad?
The Saudi Move
Landing on a private plane in Damascus on May 3rd, Saudi Arabia’s head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Khaled bin Ali al-Humaidan, met with Assad and his deputy for security affairs, Brigadier General Ali Mamlouk. There were no photo opportunities or official statements released. A Saudi official told The Guardian that this policy shift had been “planned for a while, but nothing has moved. Events have shifted regionally and that provided the opening.” Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini arrived in Riyadh on May 26 to attend a Saudi tourism summit. This is the first visit of a Syrian regime official to Saudi Arabia in ten years. Assad’s advisor Buthaina Shaaban said1 on the occasion that “efforts are being made for better relations between Damascus and Riyadh, and we may witness results in this regard in the coming days.” There are speculations that Saudi Arabia might soon reopen its embassy in Damascus. The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy there in December 2018 and Oman reappointed an ambassador in Damascus in October 2020.
Other media reports revealed2 that these discussions in Damascus focused on “the role of Syria in appeasing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.” Riyadh has been reaching out to Tehran through Iraqi and Syrian channels; however, these mutual visits can only be interpreted in the context of potentially breaking the Arab isolation of the Assad regime. The Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul Karim Ali, said on May 6th that, “Syria welcomes any initiative that includes a responsible reconsideration out of concern for its brothers, Saudi Arabia is a dear sister country and Syria welcomes any step that promotes Arab relations” while noting that, “We hope it won’t take long, and we appreciate what we’ve heard from senior officials in Saudi Arabia in the media.”
Ambassador Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the Saudi foreign ministry, said that the news about Humaidan’s visit was inaccurate, without explicitly denying it. At the same time, reports noted that he said that Saudi policy toward Syria “remained based on support for the Syrian people, for a political solution under a United Nations umbrella and in accordance with Security Council resolutions, and for the unity and Arab identity of Syria.” Riyadh seems to be testing the reaction of the United States and the international community to such a warming of relations with Damascus while continuing to distance itself from the Syrian opposition. Last January, Saudi Arabia suspended the work of the Syrian Negotiating Committee in Riyadh amid disputes among its members, and there has been a steady decline in Saudi support for the Syrian opposition since 2017.
Riyadh seems to be testing the reaction of the United States and the international community to such a warming of relations with Damascus while continuing to distance itself from the Syrian opposition.
The only US comment on this development came through a State Department official who seemed to acknowledge the visit of the Saudi official to Damascus and told3 al-Hurra TV that “we believe that stability in Syria and the region in general can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians and we are committed to working with allies and the United Nations to ensure that a lasting political solution remains within reach.” The Biden Administration did not warn against such a rapprochement and there are no indications it is attempting to halt the effort.
The G7 meeting of foreign ministers and development ministers, which was held in London on May 5th, issued a carefully crafted message on Syria, with the communiqué affirming that, “Only when a credible political process is firmly under way would we consider assisting with the reconstruction of Syria.” Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported4 that French officials were not receptive to the idea of including in the communiqué that the Syrian election “should not lead to any measure of international normalization with the Syrian regime,” hence the sentence was ultimately omitted. This might indicate that the United States could potentially ignore Saudi reconciliation with Damascus if it remains limited in scope.
Russian-Saudi Coordination and the Syrian Election
The Syrian election is important for both Russia and the Syrian regime to claim that Assad has been legitimately reelected for a seven-year term, hence reinforcing this status quo ahead of any political process to potentially resolve the Syrian conflict. The international community has already discredited the election but there is little it can do to change the dynamics in Syria. Moscow is now focused on starting the reconstruction process, returning at least some Syrian refugees to their home country, and normalizing the Syrian regime’s foreign relations. It will undoubtedly use the election moving forward to advance these objectives.
The international community has already discredited the election but there is little it can do to change the dynamics in Syria.
The renewed Gulf rapprochement with the Assad regime, which began in 2018, now has its own set of motivations. First, driven by domestic calculations, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) is mending fences with regional foes, including Iran and Turkey. MbS said on April 28 that “Iran is a neighboring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran.” Even though a breakthrough is not expected in these regional dialogues, they are reinforcing what seems to be the inevitable normalization of Saudi relations with Damascus. Second, Riyadh believes it has common interests with Russia and the Assad regime to counter Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria and beyond. Third, the difficult US-Saudi relations under the Biden Administration are also part of Saudi calculations in the timing of this restoration of relations with Damascus. As Riyadh and Moscow are getting closer and former President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House, the Saudi leadership is less inclined to appease Joe Biden. Fourth, Saudi Arabia may need Assad’s help in Lebanon as the dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran might not be enough to change the political dynamics to facilitate Saudi interests in Beirut, as Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri continues to struggle to form a Lebanese government.
Saudi Arabia may need Assad’s help in Lebanon as the dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran might not be enough to change the political dynamics to facilitate Saudi interests in Beirut.
During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Abu Dhabi in March, his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said that the “bigger challenge today facing coordination and working with Syria is the Caesar Act,” hinting that the American law “makes this path very difficult, not only for us as a nation, but also for the private sector” and that this issue “should be part of dialogue we address clearly with our friends in the United States.” The UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait all allowed Syrians in their countries to participate in the early vote in the presidential election organized by Damascus this week, which shows a growing Gulf flexibility in dealing with the Assad regime. Syrian Foreign Minister Faysal al-Mikdad visited Oman on March 20th to discuss bilateral relations. There is a gradual Gulf effort to engage the Syrian regime and restore its membership in the Arab League, which was suspended in November 2011, but this process might not be fully effective unless there is a green light from Washington.
US Policy toward Syria
The first indication of a Biden Administration policy on Syria came with the extension of the US national emergency with respect to Syria on May 6. While this routine administrative notice sharply criticized the Assad regime, it does not necessarily mean that the Biden Administration has a clear approach in Syria nor that it considers Syria a high priority. The Administration left the door open for lifting the sanctions in the event there was a significant change in the Syrian regime’s behavior. “The United States will consider changes in policies and actions of the Government of Syria in determining whether to continue or terminate this national emergency in the future,” concluded the notice.
The Biden Administration seems neither to encourage nor to oppose this rapprochement by the Gulf states with the Assad regime.
The Biden Administration seems neither to encourage nor to oppose this rapprochement by the Gulf states with the Assad regime. Washington did not counter Lavrov’s Gulf tour by publicly stating its opposition, nor has it insisted on including this matter in the G7 communiqué. If the United States and Russia could manage to defuse tensions in their bilateral relations, then the Biden Administration could potentially resume diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict. This might give Biden leverage to convince Riyadh that the Assad regime should show some willingness to make concessions before allowing normalization to proceed. The UN-led process in Geneva primarily depends on this complex US-Russian relationship. There are indications out of Washington and Moscow that these talks might be renewed this year, but it is not clear if they will reach a conclusion, given the big divide between the warring parties.
When it comes to US policy in dealing with the Assad regime, there is also the focus on the humanitarian dimension, which might be high on the US-Russian agenda in the next weeks. The UN Security Council’s one-year extension of cross-border aid delivery to Idlib through Bab al-Hawa crossing expires in July and Russia plans to use this as leverage to force concessions from both the United States and Turkey. The United Nations uses this crossing to send about 1,000 truckloads of aid each month to Idlib. Moreover, the issue of American abductees in Syria might be a factor in shaping US policy. The Biden Administration signaled it has “no higher priority” than the release of the American journalist Austin Tice, who was abducted in a Damascus suburb in 2012 and is one of the longest held American hostages abroad. Securing his release requires some form of contact with the Assad regime. Kash Patel, a deputy assistant to President Trump and the top White House counterterrorism official, visited Damascus last year in an effort to secure release of at least two Americans believed to be held by the Syrian regime. Trump administration officials also reached out twice to Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s security advisor, about Tice: a phone call from then CIA Director Mike Pompeo in February 2017, and a visit to Damascus by a senior CIA official in August 2018. Mamlouk, who reportedly never confirmed if Tice is in Syrian regime custody, informed US officials that Washington should withdraw its troops from Syria and normalize relations with Damascus before Syria would allow any progress on this case. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime in 2012.
The Biden Administration has signaled a willingness to reconsider its views of Assad if there were concessions; however, it is not clear yet what benchmarks will be accepted by Washington. It will be hard for Assad to restore his pre-2011 status and Russia might not be ready to give up on him without significant gains in return. Some Gulf countries seem ready to restore relations with the Assad regime and consider potential investments in Damascus, and this will be a test to see how the Biden Administration might react. The Syrian issue might climb higher on the agenda in the upcoming talks between the United States and key allies in the Gulf region, once the Biden Administration articulates a clear policy in Syria. However, while we might see limited Arab investment in Syria, one should not expect a shift on this issue in the United States and the European Union anytime soon.
Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here