A Saudi minister has announced that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would attend the G20 summit in Argentina this month. This would be his first trip since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, where he would be in the presence of the leaders of Turkey and the United States. The prince will have to make amends for the Khashoggi fiasco and remind his partners that Saudi Arabia can contribute to regional stabilization. One of his cards may be Syria.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah affirmed last March that the crown prince had offered reconstruction funding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a normalization of bilateral relations, in exchange for a Syrian breakup with Iran. Three days later, the crown prince stated that “Bashar is staying” and that Riyadh’s problem was indeed Syria’s alliance with Iran. However, there are two major impediments that make a Syrian-Iranian divorce unlikely.
First, Assad had reversed his father’s policy of balancing between Syria’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran even before 2011. After the Gulf war of 1991, Hafez al-Assad had built a personal relationship with then-crown prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, securing Saudi financial and political support. While Riyadh was Bashar’s first Arab destination as president, the 2003 Iraq war created an opening for Iran to expand its reach in a region divided between an alignment led by Iran and Syria, and another led by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The subsequent wars in Lebanon and Gaza deepened their confrontation. Bashar reacted by signing new defense memorandums with Iran and opened his country to Iranian influence. All attempts by the Gulf states to pry Syria away from Iran failed in those years.
Second, Bashar never trusted Saudi Arabia to defend Syria against threats from the United States. His regime always believed that Saudi Arabia was “paralyzed” by its alliance with Washington. Today, Saudi and U.S. policies in the Middle East are aligned, even as Bashar is being asked to sacrifice a 28-year-old alliance with Iran that has provided him with oil, credit and aid, and, most importantly during the Syrian conflict, tens of thousands of Shi‘a combatants whom Saudi Arabia cannot replace. Even if Assad wanted to sever his relationship with Iran, it is difficult to see how he could do so now.
That is why Saudi Arabia won’t have its way with Syria in this regard. Yet Riyadh should continue its current involvement in Syria and push for a transition toward a Syrian regime that, at least, restores Hafez al-Assad’s balancing act between Syria’s alliance with Iran and its relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has the tools to act on both the international and Arab fronts to reach such an objective.
On the international front, both the United States and Russia have urged Saudi Arabia to take more action in Syria. In October 2018, Washington’s and Moscow’s envoys on Syria visited Riyadh on consecutive days, asking the kingdom to engage in what has been dubbed a “political solution” to the conflict. Saudi Arabia should continue its commitment to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State group through its co-leadership of the coalition’s Counter-ISIS Finance Working Group. It also sits on the coalition’s Communications and Stabilization Working Groups and recently contributed $100 million for stabilization in Syria. It is a member of the Small Group on Syria and a speech by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on November 19 confirmed his country’s embrace of its objectives.
Saudi Arabia can easily do more to build a social base for its growing influence among Syrian communities outside the control of the Assad regime. Riyadh is a hub for some members of the Syrian opposition and prominent Syrian businessmen and has claimed to host over 400,000 Syrian refugees. It also has influence among “moderate” Islamist groups inside Syria. These groups can be acceptable to the United States and European countries and are under Russian pressure to reconcile with the regime. The KSRelief Center, the humanitarian arm of the kingdom’s foreign policy, is already operating in the north of Syria and in neighboring countries, distributing aid and funding and implementing projects in the education, health, infrastructure, and professional training sectors.
On the Arab front, Assad is already bragging about normalizing Syria’s relations with Arab countries. With the help of American sanctions against economic partners of the Assad regime, Riyadh can exert pressure on those partners and use this to push for an inclusive and fair political transition in Syria and the safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees. If Riyadh cannot prevent Arab states from trading with Assad, it nevertheless needs to ensure that this trade doesn’t allow for reconstruction in areas under regime control because this would only foster regime stability.
The current economic sanctions on Iran and the fact that the United States controls oil-producing areas of Syria increase Syrian and Russian need for Arab economic intervention in Syria. The leverage that this creates may mean that a political transition in the country is not as far-fetched as some believe.
Saudi Arabia could benefit from working with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in this regard. Both countries are U.S. and Saudi allies, have connections that Assad seeks, as well as economic and strategic interests in Syria. Egypt and to a lesser extent the UAE were not as implicated as Saudi Arabia in the Syrian conflict. Potentially, Egypt and the UAE can engineer a golden parachute for Assad if his departure ever becomes the price for a political settlement. Egypt is indeed the Arab country that is the least threatening to the Assad regime, the Syrian people, Iran, and Russia. Above all, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh are, at least publicly, at war with one of Bashar’s archenemies, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia should not seek to push U.S. forces in Syria into a military confrontation with Iran or deploy Saudi troops in the country. A Saudi military presence would hamper Arab efforts to stabilize Syria and reduce Saudi chances of challenging Iran’s influence there. Rather, now is a good time for Saudi political action. Small Group members are likely to convene soon, after the G20 summit and prior to the new UN envoy on Syria’s beginning his work. Riyadh should use the meeting to discuss steps for further action in Syria. This needs to be more realistic to have a greater impact.
Yasmine Farouk is a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program.