Date first published: 01/06/2023
Key sectors: all
Key risks: internal conflict; political stability; political violence
On 19 May Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) warmly embraced President Bashar al-Assad on his arrival in the Saudi city of Jeddah to attend the Arab League summit for the first time in 11 years. The Syrian regime was excluded from the league at the start of the civil war in 2011 and the regime’s brutal repression of the rebellion. Assad’s invitation was widely condemned by human rights groups, the United States (US) and many of its Western allies.
Why it matters
Riyadh’s role in President Assad’s return to the Arab League is indicative of a wider shift in the Middle East’s geopolitical order. As it became clear that the Syrian opposition would fail to gain the upper hand against the regime, so did the need for a diplomatic resolution to contend with the many issues arising from the Syrian civil war, including countering the westward expansion of Iranian influence, managing the flow of refugees and combating the Captagon trade.
Mounting threats to regional security posed by drug trafficking networks led to the increased urgency to engage with Damascus, whose ties to production and trade of the synthetic amphetamine drug Captagon are alleged to have provided President Assad with a financial lifeline amid economic isolation. The impact of Captagon trafficking on Jordan and Gulf countries is likely to have weighed on these countries’ decision to rekindle ties with the Syrian regime. Consequently, the Captagon trade provides Assad with substantial leverage and is unlikely to relinquish revenue brought by the drug without restoration of legitimate trade – requiring the lifting of sanctions.
The Saudi push for Syria’s re-integration is indicative of its intention to reassert itself as a dominant regional power. Riyadh had previously strongly opposed Assad and backed opposition groups from the onset of the civil war. This position shifted following the Chinese-mediated rapprochement with Iran – a key Syrian ally – after years of hostility. Overall, the Saudi government has been seeking to disengage from costly regional entanglements – mainly in Yemen and Syria – to focus its resources on initiatives to diversify its economy and reduce dependence on oil exports, under the banner of MBS’ Saudi Vision 2030 initiative.
Washington’s waning influence in the Middle East and US President Joe Biden’s pivot toward Russia and China involved diminishing Western support for US allies in the region on the Syrian conflict and the broader competition for regional influence. This has put the impetus on regional powers to secure the stability of the region without the backing of US military might – making diplomacy the more realistic option.
The decision to reintegrate Syria in the Arab League is only the beginning of the process to bring an end to the Syrian civil war. The logical next step will likely be direct talks between regional actors directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. Compromises will have to be made in order to accommodate conflicting interests, particularly testing the recently improved Saudi-Iranian relations. Nevertheless, there are clear incentives to seek the stabilisation of Syria for all parties involved, not least of which is the US’s disengagement reshuffling regional power dynamics. Some resistance to the idea of Assad remaining in power is expected – from both rebels on the ground and the US and its allies – however, most consequential actors appear genuinely invested in seeing through a resolution of the conflict, which is expected to be achieved in the coming months.