The era of isolation for the President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria seems to have ended even from Saudi Arabia, one of the countries that in 2011 took the initiative to break ties with Damascus and expel it from the Arab League.
In 2011, Arab States expelled Syria from the Arab League due to the brutal repression of the Assad regime, its crimes and atrocities against Syrian citizens.
In the early years of the war, Riyadh, and not only it, invested in Islamist rebel groups in opposition to the regime.
But when the tide of civil war turned in Assad’s favor, Arab countries began to reassess their position in opposition to his rule.
Also, at this point, the Arab states do not want Syria to completely turn into a failed state. If it would reach that situation, the revolt inside Syria could break out again with a worsened situation and have a contagion effect in other countries in the region.
The first Arab states to renew relations with the Assad regime were the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Soon after, it was Oman that returned its ambassador to Syria in 2020. The Sultan’s ambassador was withdrawn from Syria in 2012, but despite this, Oman never severed diplomatic relations with Damascus.
After the February earthquake of this year that affected Turkey and Syria, the Jordanian Foreign Minister, followed by his Egyptian counterpart, visited the country. Egypt has been approaching Damascus for years, but the goal is now official.
The United Arab Emirates has always considered it very important to be part of the reconstruction of Syria. This and one of the reasons why they strongly opposed the US Caesar Act, which makes it difficult for UAE businessmen to operate in Syria.
The Caesar Act is the US law that sanctions the Syrian government, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. The law entered into force in 2020.
On March 18, President Assad was welcomed in Abu Dhabi by his Emirati counterpart, Mohammad bin Zayed. This was his first visit to an Arab country since the start of the war in Syria.
And on April 2, Reuters news agency reported that Saudi Arabia is planning to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to an Arab League summit that Riyadh will hold in May.
Why would Assad want this approach?
Bashar al-Assad now after 12 years of a fierce internal war controls about 60% of his territory, the economic crisis that has affected Syria continues to worsen and the conflict for now can only be called frozen. It is more certain that he does not have the opportunity to rebuild the destroyed country.
And even his allies, Russia and Iran, who have managed to ensure the survival of the regime, due to the difficulties they have, cannot be supportive in terms of economic recovery.
Western countries do not even consider contributing to reconstruction unless significant political and social reforms are implemented.
Therefore, the Gulf states have become the most important source for mitigating the economic crisis and transferring funds for reconstruction.
Last February’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria devastated both countries. And paradoxically it opened up new opportunities for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has sought to use the tragedy to persuade Arab states to restore relations with Damascus and push for an end to sanctions against his government. in exchange for the opening of crossing points for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Restoring relations with the Gulf countries by joining the Arab League paves the way for Assad’s Arab legitimacy, perhaps making him stronger vis-à-vis his allies in Syria. And who knows, if this would not also pave the way for relations with some Western countries.
In what context is the invitation to a meeting in the Arab League?
The first attempts to build ties between Saudi Arabia and Assad’s Syria date back to early May last year, when a Saudi delegation led by intelligence chief Khaled Hamidan was reported to have visited Damascus and met with Assad- in and with the head of Syrian intelligence, General Ali Mamlouk.
But the invitation now comes around the same time as relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran resume.
Iran deal with Saudi Arabia
On March 10, Iran and Saudi Arabia reached an agreement to restore relations severed in 2016 following the execution of Shiite leader Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed by the Saudis along with 46 others.
The agreement between the two Middle Eastern powers was finalized in China, where negotiations between the two sides had started a long time ago.
The event, obviously, caused a sensation and was unexpected. Although the Chinese took credit for the negotiations, the regional dialogue began in January 2021 in the context of the normalization of a number of relations between Iran and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which saw, over two years, the restoration of diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic and the Emirates United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
In the previous two years, the role of mediator between Iran and the Gulf countries was taken by Oman and Iraq. The latter organized the five rounds of negotiations that preceded the finalization of the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
China enters the scene at a time of Iraqi mediation crisis. The idea to actively involve China in an effort to restart negotiations appears to have come from Riyadh and was communicated to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Saudi Arabia last December.
For Iran, the deal is a way to break out of partial isolation and try to re-legitimize itself in terms of foreign policy after the suppression of protests in the country.
There is no hope that Riyadh and Tehran will return to being partners. They will continue to be rivals and compete in the region, but have only chosen to ease the confrontation they have been in so far.
Why does Saudi Arabia want rapprochement with Assad?
From Riyadh’s involvement in the Yemen conflict to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the rise to power of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has been marked by scandal and unprecedented viewership.
After reconciling with Iran, Riyadh now wants to be at the forefront of efforts to calm regional conflict zones, such as Syria, and achieve its own security with the aim of focusing on the country’s economic and tourism development.
Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing record economic growth in the oil and non-oil sectors, aided by the war in Ukraine, thus strengthening the economic diversification projects of the “Vision 2030” plan.
“Vision 2030” is the kingdom’s “beyond hydrocarbon” economic transformation plan.
Infrastructure and tourism are always at the center of Saudi investment, along with measures to increase the country’s attractiveness and, perhaps, domestic productivity.
The kingdom intends to establish four investment funds, amounting to 10 billion Saudi riyals, to promote commercial, tourism and residential projects.
Saudi Arabia has also launched an investment fund for the culture, tourism, sports and entertainment industry, the Events Investment Fund.
To further internationalize investment and tourist flows, the government has announced the birth of a new national airline, Riyadh Air.
The kingdom’s socio-economic transformation clearly requires regional stability and focus on domestic policies.
While we know how the war in Syria went, it is clear that Russia and Iran have gained in their support for Bashar al-Assad. Given the influence of the latter in Syria, Lebanon with Hezbollah, Iraq and Yemen, it is time for the Saudis to reduce the pressure and start the path of diplomacy.
One of the reasons for this movement may also be an ideological issue. No longer having control over rebel groups inside Syria, and as these groups become more Islamist over time, the Arab states engaging in this opening with Damascus want to ensure that these Islamist forces can be contained and defeated, and thus do not spread in their countries.
The fact that the Assad regime has defeated Islamic extremists in Idlib and the opposition, part of which included elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a reassuring factor for other countries.
The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
And the last but not least reason why Saudi Arabia is seeking to start relations with Assad is the unprecedented proliferation of Captagon, one of the highly addictive narcotics, which is produced in Syria with the involvement of clearly of the regime and its security organs.
Captagon, the central reason
Little was heard of this drug in 2015, when it was found among some ISIS (Islamic State) members, until March 29, when the US and UK, in an attempt to send a message to the Gulf States set to normalize relations with the Syrian government, sanctioned four Syrians, including relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s family, two Lebanese and two entities involved in the illegal production and trafficking of Captagon amphetamines.
The synthetic amphetamine-based drug, known as Captagon, was dubbed a “jihadist drug” because of its use by members of the Islamic State group during the war in Syria.
It has now become the drug of choice among young people in the Gulf states for recreational use and has become a serious social problem.
Captagon is thus a great source of income for the Assad regime, but also a direct threat to the countries of the area.
Jordanian security forces have battled drug traffickers along the border with Syria in recent years, and Saudi authorities have seized millions of Captagon pills hidden in fruit and vegetables.
The Saudi hope is that in exchange for billions of dollars in aid, the Assad regime will reduce its involvement in drug trafficking.
Does Assad really intend to give up the production and smuggling of Captagon?
The production and trafficking of this synthetic drug consisting of phenethylline has become a lifeline for the Syrian regime during the course of the war since 2011.
According to analysts, Syria has become a veritable narco-state, responsible for 80 percent of Captagon’s supply, which accounts for at least three times its national budget.
Captagon production has emerged as the main source of foreign exchange for Assad’s circles. By some estimates, the sale of Captagon earns more than all of Syria’s other legal exports combined.
According to the British Foreign Office, there is talk of profits of 57 billion dollars a year, which is “the equivalent of three times the drug trafficking of the Mexican cartels”.
Based on media reports, it appears that Saudi Arabia has made curbing production of Captagon a precondition for normalization with Assad, who has reportedly offered to take steps to do so “as a gesture of his willingness to good”.
But regarding a promise from Assad, Jordan has already paid the price of unreliability. Reconciled with Syria in 2021, hoping to see a reduction in Captagon trafficking, in reality Jordanian authorities have reported a 50 percent increase in seizures.
The Jordanian military, for example, intercepted 361 attempts to smuggle Captagon pills across its border in 2021, resulting in the deaths of several Jordanian border guards.
So it is unlikely that Riyadh will be very successful in this regard. Especially since the Saudi market is also a profitable market where a pill can be sold for four times more than in other markets.
In any case, Damascus knows that normalization with Riyadh could open the door to the Arab world, so it will be careful to make a show of at least a few good deeds of falsely seizing drug shipments.