Recent reports, often reflecting forward-leaning statements from Saudi officials, indicate Riyadh is on the verge of restoring diplomatic ties with Syria that it cut in 2011. In addition, the Saudis appear to be ready to invite Damascus to retake its seat in the Arab League. This was apparently already on Riyadh’s projected diplomatic to-do list by late 2022, but the massive earthquakes that struck Syria (and neighboring Turkey) in early February seem to have accelerated the timetable. According to one report, Saudi Arabia is taking steps that would enable the Arab League to end Syria’s suspension in time for a summit in Riyadh in mid-May. Such moves would allow Saudi Arabia to position itself as the leader of Arab consensus and make a virtue of its slower-paced diplomacy toward Damascus. The moves would also reinforce Saudi Arabia’s recent initiative to ease regional tensions by restoring ties with Iran. This was on display April 6 in Beijing as Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan met with his Iranian counterpart to accelerate implementation of a March 10 agreement to restore diplomatic ties.
There has been a trajectory of Arab governments’ gradual normalization of relations with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since late 2018, when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. Oman returned its ambassador in 2020. The pace began to quicken in 2021 as Jordan reopened its border with Syria, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Damascus, and the head of Saudi intelligence, Khalid al-Humaidan, reportedly met with his counterpart for talks in Syria. Assad was received in Abu Dhabi in 2022 and, again, in the UAE and Oman, in the weeks following the earthquakes. In early April, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited Cairo, in the first such official visit to Egypt in a decade. There have even been indications that Turkey, long one of the strongest supporters of the armed opposition to the Assad regime, is seriously considering restoring ties, underscored by reports Turkish and Syrian defense ministers and heads of intelligence were hosted in December 2022 by their Russian counterparts in Moscow.
Given this long-building surge in regional diplomatic activity, the recent reports that Saudi Arabia has decided to restore diplomatic relations with Damascus are not surprising. Saudi foreign policy has often been to allow others to take the initial and intermediate steps, so that its eventual move in the same direction is viewed as solidifying Arab and regional consensus, with Saudi leadership. Saudi official statements – and actions – over the past two years have signaled the intent to move in this direction. Most recently, in March, Faisal bin Farhan stated that “isolating Syria was not working”; a month earlier, at the Munich Security Conference, the Saudi foreign minister noted that, regarding Syria, “there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable.” Reports as far back as 2021 began to chart this change in Saudi attitude toward the Syrian regime, although pegged to the then unconfirmed 2021 Humaidan visit and based on non-Saudi sources.
Expected Saudi Move Likely to Have Substantial Impact in Washington
It’s not clear how the United States will respond to all the moves toward restoring diplomatic ties with Syria. The Saudi decision, if initial reports are confirmed, is likely to have substantial impact in Washington, given Riyadh’s extensive influence in the region and beyond, and could prompt a reassessment of U.S. Syria policy, although it’s premature to say where that might lead. For now, U.S. policy continues to emphasize accountability of the Syrian regime for grave human rights abuses. Other key policy elements include the need for a political solution in Syria based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, robust support for humanitarian needs, and maintaining troops in the northeast to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Washington has long tried to hold the line on diplomatic normalization to keep its calls for regime accountability at least modestly plausible. But with economic sanctions not targeting diplomatic activity, the approach of the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has by and large remained rhetorical, with public remarks expressing disagreement and voicing skepticism about what was gained from a particular step toward normalization. The administration of President Donald J. Trump was a bit stiffer with its criticism, privately, but the public response to particular instances of countries taking action to restore ties with the Assad regime also remained rhetorical.
Regular reiterations of the importance of holding Assad accountable are likely to constrain Washington’s ability to change direction on this issue. Without walking back – or at least de-emphasizing – the issue of accountability, it will be difficult for the Biden administration to make any moves on normalization or even, if it saw the need, to establish contact with the Assad regime.
The bigger constraint is that U.S. policymakers do not see a vital strategic interest in making such a shift in policy, especially one likely to prompt significant criticism from members of Congress, where anti-regime sentiment remains strong and was evident in the passage of sanctions through the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act in 2019. While some Syria hawks in the United States – including members of Congress – complain that U.S. enforcement of those sanctions has been spotty at best, they have been effective as a threat in choking off any significant reconstruction aid from flowing into Syria. (Humanitarian aid is not targeted.) In general, while not shifting U.S. policy on normalization, the administration has quietly toned down criticism of Arab governments moving in this direction.
U.S. Regional Influence Remains Substantial
With U.S. Syria policy firmly stuck between the moral calculation that no policy adjustment can be allowed for the bloodthirsty Assad regime and the realistic assessment that Assad – however messily – has won the civil war in Syria, there will inevitably be report cards issued on U.S. policy and regional influence. Sober analysts aware of the long-standing, extensive networks of military, diplomatic, and commercial influence in the Gulf insist that reports of diminished U.S. power in the region – supposedly evident in this policy disagreement over Syria – are greatly exaggerated. There is significant evidence to support this position and quiet, but insistent, voices on the Biden foreign policy team making this case.
Nonetheless, the notion of continuing, undented U.S. influence in the Gulf and the broader Middle East is a much more contested position than it was a few years ago. While the Iranian view that the region has entered a “post-American Middle East” is likely to be dismissed as a mixture of risible overstatement and Tehran’s wishful thinking, the United States’ faltering Syria policy is providing vital support for broader reassessments fretting (or gloating) about declining U.S. regional influence.
The most circumscribed view, sympathetic to the notion of continued U.S. influence, is that the region’s normalization of relations with the Assad regime represents a policy adjustment that regional leaders have coolly calculated is in their interest to make. The United States won’t join suit but will find a way through the Syria policy dissonance without seriously damaging Washington’s relations with, for example, key Gulf leaders. The United States never invested heavily, in policy terms, in the Syria conflict, and in the intermediate and longer term U.S. interests in the Gulf and the broader region will emerge relatively unscathed by the disconnect on Syria. Longer-term socioeconomic faltering in China and the apotheosis of Russia’s catastrophic performance in Ukraine will reinforce the reality of extensive longer-term U.S. influence in the region.
The contrary view is that – taken with China’s diplomatic emergence on the Iranian-Saudi diplomatic breakthrough and Moscow’s effective championing of Assad’s cause throughout the region – U.S. influence is in relative, if limited, decline. The United States’ inability in many instances to persuade partners to support its political and economic policies, as Gulf countries strategically diversify and hedge among great power poles of influence, attests to this tangible loss of influence. While Gulf countries have long sought to strategically diversify to one degree or another, China’s emergence economically and, more recently, diplomatically and Moscow’s crashing of the regional party with its 2015 Syria intervention and its leadership role in the OPEC+ alliance of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers have created new opportunities for such strategic diversification. With China likely to reemerge economically and subdue its internal socioeconomic challenges and with Russia likely at worst to suffer a disastrous, though survivable, strategic setback with the war in Ukraine, Gulf strategic diversification – emblematic in Syria normalization and other policies – will shift into overdrive.
Perceptions About U.S. Influence Control the Narrative
Time will tell which analytical gloss more accurately assesses developing events in the region and more broadly. But given the realities, it seems clear the United States will pay a higher premium in influence, going forward, for policies that regional allies find unrealistic and not sensitive to the dynamics Gulf leaders believe will shape the region in the coming decade. There may also be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at play – with regional leaders feeling freer to ignore U.S. policy dictates as they sense – or think they sense – U.S. strategic interest in the region lessening. Policy shifts in the region, like Syria normalization, in tandem with conflicting views on the relative declines and surges in influence among outside powers, seem likely to ensure the United States will continue to receive poor marks for some of its diplomacy, even as it continues to make the case its policy performance has been wrongly graded.