The domino effect induced by the diplomatic thaw between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatens to topple a new player: Syria. The government of Bashar al-Assad, under Tehran's influence, is one step away from re-establishing bilateral relations with Riyadh. "Within the framework of the Kingdom's willingness to facilitate the provision of necessary consular services between the two nations, talks are underway with Syrian officials to resume consular services," the anchor of Al-Ekhbariya TV channel, Al Jazeera's Saudi competition, confirmed on Thursday's morning news. The parties assume a historic agreement that would close the chapter of alliances drawn by the Arab Spring.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Russia's mediation has been decisive in unblocking the negotiations. Russian President Vladimir Putin took advantage of his Syrian counterpart's recent visit to the Kremlin to discuss the terms of the agreement with Saudi Arabia. Iran did the rest. Ebrahim Raisi's government convinced Damascus of the importance of reopening diplomatic channels with Riyadh after signing its own truce with the desert kingdom in Beijing. They have not been the only ones to exert pressure on al-Assad. Oman and Jordan, Arab countries with a long tradition of conflict mediation, also promoted rapprochement.
The names of Maher al-Assad and Hussam Louqa are said to be behind the negotiations. The president's younger brother, a senior army commander linked to Iranian interests, and the head of the Mukhabarat, the regime's intelligence services, reportedly led the Syrian delegation in successive rounds of talks with the Saudis, which have taken place in Riyadh and Moscow. According to sources consulted by the Wall Street Journal, the intention was to present the agreement before a possible visit to Damascus by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, scheduled for the end of April. We will have to wait, but the kingdom's chief diplomat had already written off the current status quo with Syria in his speech at the Munich Security Conference.
Damascus wants Riyadh to cut off funding to rebel militias still operating in Syria. Riyadh, for its part, wants to close the case of Saudi detainees who were captured for serving in the ranks of Islamic fundamentalist groups involved in the civil war, according to Reuters. The negotiations also cover the security architecture on Syria's border with Jordan and the smuggling of captagon, known as the jihadists' drug, from Syria.
"Before the 2011 revolution and Iran's overt interference, Syria was a member of the Arab political order, and had been allowed to play a dominant role in post-civil war Lebanon, which helped boost Hezbollah," analyst Aron Lund recalls in the pages of Al-Monitor. The Arab Spring changed everything. Riyadh funded the Syrian rebels who took up arms against the Assad regime, while Damascus relied on Tehran and Moscow to maintain power in a devastating civil war that soon became a proxy war with intersecting interests on an international scale.
"Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria have always been difficult, alternating for decades between periods of relative harmony - during which Riyadh often gave small gifts to the cash-strapped Assad regime - and fierce competition. Although neither regime had much love for the other, ties did not break down completely until 2011, when Riyadh backed calls for Assad's ouster and, in the years that followed, Saudi money was used to fund rebels trying to overthrow him," adds Lund.
Saudi Arabia promoted Syria's expulsion from the Arab League, an expulsion ultimately motivated by the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on protesters calling for his resignation. Most of the organisation's members closed ranks with the Syrian rebels, leading to Damascus' final exit in 2011. But in this new scenario, Syria could regain its place despite the distrust that Assad generates in some regional circles. Others, however, are betting on his return after a decade of chaos. The Syrian president's participation in the next summit, to be held in Saudi Arabia in May, would restore him as a valid interlocutor.
"The agreement negotiated in Beijing [which certified the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia] will help the Syrian regime rehabilitate itself in the Arab political order, although this process began before the parties met in the Chinese capital (...) The original, indeed the main, impetus for this comeback was a radical change among Arab states regarding relations with Syria," writes analyst Imad Harb at the Arab Center in Washington. In reality, the campaign to redeem Assad is the work of the United Arab Emirates. A couple of years ago, Emirati diplomacy embarked on a policy of appeasement with its neighbours. Resetting its relations with Syria "is part of the plan", argues Crisis Group researcher Dina Esfandiary.
The devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria accelerated this dynamic. Syria's battered north received humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom sent a plane loaded with food and medical supplies to Aleppo airport. Assad exploited the wave of international solidarity to advance his own agenda and regain contact with a neighbourhood that had hitherto been openly hostile to him. He received the Foreign Ministers of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in Damascus, spoke by phone for the first time with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. He then visited Oman and the United Arab Emirates. In the latter, he was accompanied by his wife.
"What seems certain is that the Syrian regime has managed not only to overcome Arab objections to its rehabilitation, but also to preserve its close relationship with Iran while securing Russia's support as a counterweight to the Islamic Republic's influence in the country," Harb argues. "Asad is under no obligation to reduce his relations with Iran. Iran's role and influence in Syria continues apace, and in his weakened position after 12 years of civil war and economic and physical destruction, the Syrian president is in no position to distance himself from Tehran, as some Arab regimes would have him do".
Assad comes out stronger, but Mohammed bin Salman is not far behind. The crown prince, the country's real strongman, is taking advantage of the context to bury the hatchet, defuse regional tensions and develop his ambitious economic plans for the kingdom. It is one more step in a strategy that includes a series of previous moves, such as the détente with Qatar and Turkey, the truce agreed in Yemen with the Houthi rebels and, as a culmination, the rapprochement with Iran. A period to put its stamp on foreign policy and set its own profile vis-à-vis the United States, which is once again left out of the equation.