Through Post-Earthquake Aid, Is Saudi Arabia Signaling Interest in Syrian Rapprochement? | An Avi Melamed exlusive article for the ITME HUB
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Syria’s Civil War has run an extreme price tag over the last 12 years, costing billions if not trillions of dollars in damage, more than a half million losses of human life and limb, a refugee crisis felt across the world, and a tremendous loss to President Assad and his government on the diplomatic scale. Yet despite the war having no real end in sight, when Syria experienced a devastating earthquake in February, Saudi Arabia, with whom it currently does not share diplomatic relations stepped in to assist providing humanitarian aid. Could this be the signal that the Saudis are open to a Syrian rapprochement?
In March of 2011, Syria’s Civil War began. By September of that year, Syria saw its membership in the Arab League frozen, and months later Gulf states recalled their ambassadors. These were among the starkest expressions of the Arab world’s anger with the Assad regime for its brutality against the Syrian people, and its chosen allies in its war against its citizens.
To summarize, the Arab world and the international community have consistently demanded that Assad’s regime implement the 2015 UNSC Resolutions 2254 and 236 of the Geneva I Conference on Syria. These agreements outline three major conditions for a political settlement in Syria including:
- The return of Syrian refugees to their homes while ensuring their security and civil rights
- Free elections held that will give authentic expression to the wishes of the Syrian people
- The removal of all foreign forces from Syria.
Over time, the Arab world’s opposition to pardoning Assad has weakened. Many countries including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Tunisia officially maintain relations with Syria. Egypt has officially called to return Syria to the Arab League. In fact, as of today, most governments and rulers of the Arab world are ready to pardon Assad for his actions. Arab public opinion has similarly softened against the backdrop of the need to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
Yet, the major obstacle still blocks the Arab world from granting Assad his final and formal forgiveness remains Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy’s prominence within Arab world diplomacy, the financial power it wields through its investments across the Middle East and Africa, and its ability to potentially fund parts of the Syrian effort to rebuild, make it an essential partner for Assad as he works to pull himself out of the 12-year and counting conflict.
But Saudi ratification of Syria’s final return from the proverbial cold comes at a cost, the removal of Iran’s military and militia presence in Syria.
Of late, the Iranian mullah regime is grappling with mounting insurgency and instability, contributing to the continued crumbling of Iran’s economy, and Iran’s military support for Putin in Ukraine is fueling a more robust Western response to the regime.
When earlier this month Saudi Arabia sent humanitarian aid directly to Syria for the first time since 2011, following the severe earthquake that devastated much of the country’s northern region, it’s very likely that Saudi Arabia was signaling a willingness to further discuss a Syrian rapprochement, and that the Saudis feel that it’s the best time for Assad to expel the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC), and its associated militias. More than compassion, Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian aid might signal the opportunity for a Syrian breakthrough.
The question remains as to whether Assad is ready to ask the Mullah regime to withdraw its forces from Syria, leading to a far better future for Syria.
The Saudi humanitarian aid to Syria signals that Saudi forgiveness is possible. Additional Saudi gestures towards Syria – should they take place- will indicate an interesting and significant development and we should be able to detect how that could play out within the next few weeks.
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Avi Melamed is a Middle East Analyst, CEO of Inside the Middle East and Author of several books including most recently “Inside The Middle East | Entering A New Era.” A former Israeli intelligence official and the former senior Arab affairs advisor to Jerusalem mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert, he is fluent in the languages and cultures of the Middle East, and an expert on current regional affairs and their impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East. His organization, Inside the Middle East, is a nonprofit devoted to providing professional knowledge about the region and empowering critical thinking by way of non-partisan and innovative education.