The region is currently witnessing a concerted attempt by Saudi Arabia to mend its relations with the Syrian regime. This effort derives from Riyadh’s fear of Iran, and its sense that now may be an opportune moment to begin to prize Teheran’s regional allies away from it.
The tool that Saudi Arabia wishes to employ to achieve this task is its own economic power, set against the backwardness and urgent needs of the Syrian economy. It is said that if you have only a hammer, all problems start to look like nails. It might also be said that if you have only a (very weighty) check book, then everything starts to look like it’s for sale.
Syria, however, is not currently interested in trading its alliance with the Iranians. Damascus would be happy to institute a measured cooperation on certain issues with the Saudis, as part of its more general desire to emerge from isolation, and benefit from Saudi investment. But a major turnaround of Syria’s regional stance remains a fantasy, albeit one which seems to have an astonishing longevity in many circles.
The Saudis want to see an orderly process of coalition-formation in Lebanon, where the March 14 movement, led by Saudi-born Sa’ad Hariri, recently won elections. All factors likely to disrupt the process are linked in one way or another to Damascus. Hence the desire to bring the Syrians on board.
In addition, the Saudis have long been disturbed by the growing regional ambitions of the Shi’ite Islamist regime in Teheran. The split between pro-Iranian and pro-US Arab states has come to dominate intra-Arab diplomacy. During Israel’s Gaza operation earlier this year, the divisions made it impossible for the Arab League to even convene a quorate meeting to condemn Israel.
The Iranian regime is in trouble. So the time seems ripe to tempt its friends to abandon it.
The Saudis have little coercive power. What they do have is money, and lots of it. So the central tool being employed by Riyadh to coax Syria back into the Arab fold is financial support. Once the largest foreign investors in Syria, Saudi investments dropped massively after the nadir in relations between the two countries that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon in 2005. Investments have now, however, begun to creep up again, according to Western media reports. A Saudi construction firm recently announced the opening of a $110 million industrial park. The Syrians, whose oil sector is in steady and irreversible decline, are in dire need of help for their economy.
Diplomatic moves have accompanied the return of investment. The Saudis have announced the return of their ambassador to Damascus. There were even rumors of a visit by King Abdullah himself to Syria, though these appear to have been based on nothing of substance. But clearly a genuine effort by the Saudis to return Syria to the Arab fold is under way.
That effort is being augmented by enthusiastic French and to a lesser degree US engagement with Syria. Claude Geant, the French presidential secretary, recently met with President Assad in Damascus. He later said that Syria is a “strong country, and no Middle East problem can be resolved without Damascus being involved.”
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, meanwhile, told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the possibility of “real cooperation” between Washington and Damascus existed, in pursuit of “objectives of common interest.”
There are a number of basic flaws in the thinking behind this courtship.
Regarding the Lebanese coalition negotiations – despite the Syrian tendency to imply that Damascus has the power to restrain or unleash all anti-Western forces across the Middle East, this is not in fact the case in Lebanon. Hizbullah has a close relationship with the Syrian regime, but the movement is not a puppet of the Syrians. Rather, it is a creation and client of Iran.
More fundamentally, not one scrap of evidence has emerged to suggest that Syria is in any way inclined to transform its regional stances because of Saudi largesse, or French and American promises.
On the contrary, Syrian spokesmen at every opportunity reaffirm their commitment to the alliance with Iran. Solemn repetition by sundry “experts” and analysts that it would be in Damascus’s “interest” to break from Teheran does not constitute evidence.
The unrest in Iran is continuing, but the idea that Iranian plans for regional hegemony are in eclipse is hugely premature. In the meantime, all sides are watching events in Teheran closely, and waiting.
Syria needs foreign investment, from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But Saudi money, and smooth-talking French envoys, are already, it seems, finding their way to Damascus – at a time when the Syrian strategic alliance with Iran remains very much alive. So what is the urgent incentive for the Syrians to reconsider it?
Ultimately, the Saudis have a limited range of options available to them, so their stance is not surprising. Still, the fact remains that talking softly while offering a large carrot is not the advisable means of ensuring Syrian cooperation, compliance or strategic realignment.