Hugs and Kisses in New York

Why the Saudis are trying to rebuild bridges with Damascus 

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It was a truly rare and unprecedented sight to see Syrian Foreign Minster Walid al-Muallem embrace his Bahraini counterpart Sheikh Khaled Bin-Ahmad Al Khalifa on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Not just because of the warmth of the encounter between the two men and their exchange of kisses. But also because it was broadcast by the Al-Arabiya TV station and its sister channel Al-Hadath. It was re-shown repeatedly, with the comment that “this step comes as part of efforts to revive the Arab role in the Syrian dossier.” No explanation was given for this curious and intriguing phrase.

For the past seven years, the Gulf states have voted to suspend Syria’s membership of the Arab League and put pressure on other Arab governments to do the same. This move by the Bahraini minister cannot have been made purely on Bahrain’s own initiative. Rather, it was a trial balloon floated by the Saudi-led side of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It was no coincidence that it was applauded by Al-Arabiya, which was used to spearhead Saudi Arabia’s campaign of incitement against the Syrian regime and support efforts to depose it. The Saudi government most certainly ordered the clip to be aired along with the accompanying comment.

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A number of considerations need to be taken into account to explain or understand this step:

– First: Bahrain could not have made a move like this without a green light from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It should not be surprising that its foreign minister was assigned the task of opening up a channel of contact and dialogue with Damascus. Bahrain has been less involved in the Syrian crisis, whether politically, militarily or financially, than any other ally.

– Second: This embrace followed Friday’s closed-door meeting between the foreign ministers of the six GCC states, Egypt and Jordan and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This was meant to prepare for a summit-level meeting between the leaders of these countries next January to inaugurate the so-called ‘Arab Nato’ – the new regional security alliance they are expected to join under the leadership of Donald Trump.

– Third: It has become clear that the Gulf states appreciate that the Syrian crisis is drawing to a close: that the US-led alliance has been dealt a major defeat; that President Asad and his regime’s retention of power has become inevitable and non-negotiable; and that it is a matter of weeks if not days before the Syrian army restores state sovereignty over the province of Idlib

This may be a bid to woo the Syrian regime and decouple it from the Iranian-led resistance axis. Lebanese MP Nawaf al-Mousawi, who is very close to Hezbollah, recently revealed that Saudi Arabia offered Asad a $10 billion-plus deal in exchange for distancing himself from Iran.

Saudi Arabia now leads only half of the GCC. Along with UAE, it is waging a losing war in Yemen which has become a financial and moral burden and is hard to resolve by military means. It knows full well that Syria is recovering, and is emerging strengthened due to the support of Russia and Iran (along with Hezbollah). Building bridges with the country could be useful in several respects, especially with regard to mediation with Iran in future, either to reduce tensions with Tehran or to find a way out of the Yemen impasse.

It is worth noting that the Saudi leadership has washed its hands entirely of the Syrian opposition, and its media outlets have toned down their campaigns against the Syrian government. It has frozen, if not terminated, its relationship with the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) that it hosted in Riyadh. No Saudi official has met with any of the group’s leaders for six months or more.

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It may be premature to hope for a reconciliation between Syria and the Saudi-led camp. In most of the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US remains the most important decision-maker. It would be wise to wait to see what the Trump Administration is cooking up for the region under the so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance, the Arab Nato, against Iran – and what the Arab and regional reaction is to the embargoing of Iranian oil export s in November.

The Syrian leadership in Damascus has never felt better than it does now. It has managed to regain more than 80% of its country’s territory. Meanwhile, thanks to Russian ingenuity, it has thrown the high-explosive bomb of Idlib into the lap of its enemy, President Erdogan of Turkey. Now it finds the Gulf states, that took the lead role in funding the armed groups that sought to overthrow it, seeking its friendship. They offer it its place back in the Arab League, but it declines and plays hard to get!

How things change; how attitudes change; and how those who laugh last laugh loudest.