Saudi-Syrian meeting may help end decade of estrangement

Riyadh no longer enjoys the unequivocal backing of the US administration

A visit by the Saudi intelligence chief to Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart and President Bashar al-Assad is regarded as a milestone on the road to restoring diplomatic relations after nearly a decade of estrangement.

The encounter between Saudi intelligence chief Khaled Humaidan and Syria's Ali Mamluk followed a meeting in Baghdad between Humaidan and Iran's intelligence chief Gen Ali Shamkhani, just as efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear pact opened in Vienna.

The renewal of contacts suggested Riyadh has dropped its opposition to the nuclear deal, which lifts sanctions on Iran in exchange for limiting its nuclear programme.

Saudi Arabia is recalibrating its regional relations. The Saudis have been on track to reconcile with Syria, an Iran ally, since the Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in 2018, and Oman, which had kept its embassy open, returned its ambassador in 2020.

The Saudi regime is not as strong at home or abroad as it was before King Salman took the throne in 2015 and, flouting power-sharing family traditions, made his son Mohammed de facto ruler. Oil prices have fallen, reducing Saudi revenue and clout on the international scene.

The prince launched a $100 billion stalemated war in Yemen. He alienated powerful princes, businessmen and officials with an anti-corruption campaign. The prince has been blamed for the brutal murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and has jailed scores of opponents and critics.

Riyadh no longer enjoys the unequivocal backing of the US administration and fears Iranian rockets and drones which, fired from Yemen, have struck Saudi oil facilities, airports and cities.

Ties between Riyadh and Damascus were strained by its support for Iran during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which was financed by Saudi Arabia. When Assad cracked down on protesters in 2011, Riyadh was the first Arab capital to condemn him. It cut ties a year later and began meddling in the Syrian conflict.

Jihadi factions

The Saudis armed and financed major jihadi factions fighting Syria's government, enabling them to capture northwestern Idlib province in 2015. This prompted Iran to step up its involvement in Syria and Russia to intervene to counter the militant surge.

The Saudis also sponsored the expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition, which lacked support inside Syria although the group has been backed by western powers and participates in UN-sponsored negotiations.

By reconciling with Damascus, Riyadh will cut its losses from a decade of failed policies and recognise that Assad, who controls 70 per cent of Syria, is likely to remain in office. This will also enable the Saudis, who have reconciled with Iraq and Qatar, to continue promoting Arab unity rather than division in a crisis-ridden region.