April 13, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1391

Sharp Shifts In Saudi Policy On Syria Crisis: From Recognition Of Assad Regime To Willingness To Join Military Action Against Him

April 13, 2018 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1391

In recent weeks, there have been indications of a possible shift in Saudi Arabia's policy vis-à-vis Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and recognition of his regime. These indications have prompted various predictions regarding the possibility of normalization of Saudi-Syrian relations and of the long-range ramifications of this recognition for the Syria crisis, for Syria's relations with Arab countries, and perhaps even for the balance of power in the region.[1] These predictions stopped immediately after the Syrian regime's April 7, 2018 chemical attack on the city of Douma and the subsequent Western threats of a response, and were replaced by expressions of Saudi support for a military offensive against the Assad regime and even of willingness to take part in it.[2]

These changes in Saudi policy come as no surprise. In effect, with its acceptance of the Assad regime and support for a military attack against it, Saudi Arabia is merely falling into line with the current foreign policy in the West, particularly in the U.S., and in many Arab countries, chief of them Egypt, with regard to the Syria crisis and the Assad regime.

It appears that although Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is implementing sweeping economic and social changes at home, on many foreign policy issues that occupy Saudi Arabia, such as the Syria crisis, bin Salman is being more pragmatic, adapting his stance to reality. Accordingly, it is expected that if there is no strong international military response to destabilize the Assad regime, Saudi Arabia may again recognize it, and may renew relations with it. 

This report will review the shifts in Saudi policy vis-à-vis the Assad regime in the past few weeks.

Indications Of A Shift In Saudi Policy: Recognizing The Assad Regime

The most significant indication of a possible shift in Saudi-Syrian relations was Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's surprising statement to Time magazine that "Bashar is staying."[3]

Even if they merely reflected reality, bin Salman's words evoked amazement and disappointment among many in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Senior Saudi journalist Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed explained: "Most people in the Arab world have a hard time accepting that Bashar Al-Assad could remain in power in Syria after all he has done."[4] 'Imad Al-Din Hussein, editor of the Egyptian Al-Shourouq daily, noted the importance of the prince's statement, saying: "No one imagined that a senior Saudi official would come out and say that Assad is staying. We have heard this [i.e. such statements] from European officials, and even from Donald Trump in one way or another, but when we hear it from a Gulf official, especially from the strongest man in Saudi Arabia, it is a highly significant development that can sketch out the characteristics of the next stage."[5]

With bin Salman's statement, Saudi Arabia, the last significant Arab country to support the faltering Syrian political opposition, fell into line with the other Arab countries, headed by Egypt,[6] that have come to terms with Assad's rule. It is also now in line with Western foreign policy, which no longer calls for Assad's removal and currently prioritizes the elimination of the Islamic State (ISIS).

This recognition of Assad's continuing rule is a tremendous failure of Saudi foreign policy, the leading premise of which had been his removal as a condition for any political solution in the country. It appears that the Saudis, looking on as Syria's fate is decided in closed talks by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, have realized that they, and certainly the Syrian political opposition they support, can have no significant influence on what is happening in Syria and in the region, and that they must drink from the poisoned chalice offered them by Russia and accept that Assad is going to remain in control of Syria.[7]

Bin Salman's telling a mainstream American publication that "Bashar is staying" necessarily stems from his deep understanding that contrary to expectations, the policy of the Trump administration regarding Syria is no different from that of the Obama administration. Several days later, President Trump indeed announced that he wants to withdraw American troops from Syria[8] – something bin Salman may have known about, since at that time he was visiting the U.S.

First Signs Of Acceptance Of Assad Regime Came A Year Ago

The early signs that Saudi Arabia was coming to terms with the political reality in Syria – that is, that Assad was going to remain – could be seen about a year ago. At that time too these indications came as American officials were making many statements that undercut the Saudis' hope that U.S. policy would lead to Assad's removal.[9] As early as April 2017, journalist Al-Rashed, in an article titled "Washington: Assad Is The Reality," raised the possibility that the Gulf states would begin to deal positively with "the new political reality" – that is, the Assad regime – following changes in U.S. policy towards the regime.[10]

In accordance with Al-Rashed's hypothesis, in August 2017 a source in the Syrian political opposition reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir had told the Syrian opposition that Assad's departure during the transition was not possible, and therefore that, unless the opposition came up with a "new vision" it could not be part of the discussions for a solution in Syria.[11] This was in contrast to the official Saudi position up until that time, which made any political solution contingent upon Assad's immediate departure. This statement by Al-Jubeir – which naturally infuriated the Syrian opposition and led to the resignation of Riyad Hajab, head of Syria's main opposition bloc, the High Negotiations Committee – paralleled reports in the U.S. that President Trump had decided to end the CIA program for supporting the opposition.[12]

The Saudi Plan: Arabs Embrace Assad In Hope That He Will Sever Relations With Iran

Bin Salman's Time statement that "Bashar is staying" was immediately followed by "But I believe that Bashar’s interests is not to let the Iranians do whatever they want they want to do."[13] It does seem that Saudi Arabia's acceptance of Assad's continued rule would be contingent upon his distancing himself from Iran.

While Saudi Arabia accepts the Russian intervention in Syria, it is unwilling to come to terms with the Iranian intervention in the country. It is waging a war of attrition with the Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen, and sees Iran as the root of all problems in the region, and as working deliberately to destabilize the region. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia is watching with concern as Iran establishes itself in Syria, and as Iranian territorial contiguity from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon develops.

To counteract this, Saudi Arabia is seeking to pull Assad into the Arab fold and weaken his alliance with Iran. The Saudi reconciliation with the Assad regime that slaughters its own people is a manifestation of the miserable failure of Saudi foreign policy, but even if this concession pains the Saudis, Iran's continued entrenchment and increased strength in Syria is a much worse prospect.

'Imad Al-Din Hussein noted that during bin Salman's March 2018 meeting with Egyptian journalists, he said that Saudi Arabia "aspires to distance Bashar Al-Assad from Iran." Hussein added that "Iran's isolation and persecution on the diplomatic level has become a pressing Saudi aim."[14]

The first evidence of practical Saudi-Syrian rapprochement moves was a statement by Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, who revealed in a speech in late March 2018 that the Saudis and Syrians had met "someplace or other" and that during the meeting "the Saudis suggested that the Syrians sever relations with Iran and with the resistance [i.e. Hizbullah]." This, he said, "was in exchange for the cessation of [Saudi] support for the terrorists in Syria [i.e. the Syrian rebels] and support for rebuilding Syria at a cost of billions of dollars."[15]

The prospects for the success of this move to cut Syria off from its savior Iran are doubtful, and it could be an unrealistic gamble. About this, Abd Al-Munim Mustafa wrote in the Saudi Al-Madina daily: "Politics is the art of the possible, and achieving the possible requires some imagination. Bin Salman's openness [to Syria] is a stroll down the path of imaginary politics towards the realm of the possible." He added: "An Arab incubator has been created for Syria, and afterwards Syria will have no excuse to fall into the arms of Iran's ayatollahs. Bringing Syria back to the deeply rooted Arab fold is the practical way to thwart Iran's nearly complete plan for hegemony. But curbing the Iranian presence in Syria is still a condition to which Bashar must commit."[16]

On the other hand, Al-Rashed expressed pessimism regarding bin Salman's plan to dismantle the Syria-Iran alliance. On April 1, 2018, he wrote: "Even if Assad wants to turn over a new leaf, and agrees to stop the bloodshed, no one will believe any promise [by him] with regard to the exit of the Tehran regime's forces; [any such promise] will be broken. They have dug trenches and [built] bases, showing that they intend to stay in Syria. As there was from the outset, there is a need for a political solution that will treat the Iranian presence as an occupation force and will order them to leave [Syria]."[17]

It should be noted that Saudi Arabia had previously attempted to revive its relations with Syria and to dismantle its alliance with Iran. In January 2009, then Saudi king Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz announced a historic reconciliation with Syria, and even held a meeting with Assad, which led to ongoing contacts and coordination between the countries. This came after years of severed relations and hostility beginning with the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri and Assad's joining the pro-Iran resistance axis. At that time, too, the Saudi policy sought to distance Syria from its Iranian ally, or at least to tone down the relations between the two.  

Relations between the two countries were undermined again when, in August 2011, several months after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, Saudi Arabia could no longer remain indifferent to the bloodshed perpetrated by the Assad regime and to Iran's entrenchment in Syria and its subsequent assistance to the regime.[18]

Front page of Saudi Al-Majala magazine showing Assad front and center, December 17, 2009: "Syria's Back"

Wide-ranging analysis and commentary on what will happen following bin Salman's statement regarding Assad's staying in power appeared in the Saudi and Arab media. Some commentators expressed expectations that this announcement would pave the way to the reinstatement of Syria's Arab League membership (which was suspended on November 12, 2011, several months after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution). Several Arab states have already expressed their support for such a move, including Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon.[19]

Abd Al-Munim Mustafa wrote in Al-Madina: "The mission of the Arab regimes in the region now, after bin Salman's openness, is to develop channels of communication and means of action in order to actualize this perception on the ground that will remove Iran from the Syrian arena... bin Salman's openness towards Syria requires an Arab position. It may be that the upcoming Arab summit in Riyadh will draw together the elements that will allow it to be put into motion."[20] Other commentators predicted more dramatic developments in the near future, and did not rule out the possibility of a bin Salman-Assad meeting, if the latter agrees to dismantle his relationship with Iran,[21] as happened at the King Abdullah-Assad reconciliation meeting at the Arab League summit in 2009.

Reversal In Saudi Policy Following Assad's Chemical Attack On Douma – Willingness To Cooperate In Military Operation In Syria

It may be that the regime's April 7, 2018 chemical attack on Douma, the harsh international condemnation of the Assad regime and its allies, and the American threats to attack Syria in response have led to a sharp reversal in Saudi policy, which has again expressed support for a military solution in Syria against the Assad regime. At a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, bin Salman said that his country was willing "to act with its allies in any military operation [in Syria] if required."[22]

Support for a military solution in Syria, or participating in it, means that the Saudis have backtracked from the position expressed by bin Salman, and have shelved the new plan for normalization with the Syrian regime – a plan that from the outset was born of the necessity of recognizing the reality and falling into line with the Arab and international mood.

Explaining this reversal in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the daily's former editor Salman Al-Dosary wrote that bin Salman's expression of willingness to participate in a military operation in Syria if necessary "indicates Riyadh's steadfast position  against the Assad regime." He added that bin Salman's statements to Time magazine that "Bashar is staying" merely "reflected the reality as it is" and that "Saudi policy has opposed his remaining, and still does."[23]

At this point, it is impossible to know what the scope of the international reaction to the Douma chemical attack will be. If this reaction does not pose a risk to the Assad regime's stability, and does not lead to his removal – as did the American response to the April 2017 Khan Shaykhun attack – the scenario of renewed Saudi-Syrian relations and Saudi recognition of the reality of Assad's regime may again be on the kingdom's agenda. 

*Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel.


[1] See for example articles by Abd Al-Munim Mustafa in the Saudi Al-Madina daily, April 3, 2018; Muhammad Al-Sa'ed in the Saudi daily 'Okaz, April 2, 2018; Al-Shourouq editor 'Imad Al-Din Hussein in the Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq, April 2, 2018; and Radwan Al-Sayyed in the UAE daily Al-Ittihad, April 8, 2018.

[2] See for example statements by bin Salman that Saudi Arabia is ready "to act with its allies in any military operation [in Syria] if required." 'Okaz, Saudi Arabia, April 11, 2018. See also article by Khaled Suleiman, 'Okaz, April 12, 2018; and article by Salman Al-Dosary, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 12, 2018.

[3], March 30, 2018.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1, 2018.

[5] Al-Shourouq (Egypt), April 2, 2018.

[6] It should be noted that with Egyptian President Al-Sisi's rise to power, a rift developed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia with regard to the best solution for the Syria crisis. The Saudis maintained that there was a need for a military solution and for Assad's removal, while Egypt insisted that there must be a political solution and that the Assad regime must remain. In the past year, there have been clear signs of rapprochement between Egypt and the Syrian regime, with Egypt openly working more closely politically, economically, and culturally with the latter. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1202, Egypt-Saudi Arabia Relations: Substantial Rifts Despite Shared Basic Interests, November 11, 2015; Inquiry & Analysis No. 1347, Egypt Draws Closer To Assad Regime: Openly Participates In Damascus International Fair, Brokers Ceasefire Agreements In Syria, September 21, 2017; Inquiry & Analysis No. 1284, Growing Egypt-Syria Rapprochement Includes Al-Sisi Statement In Support Of Syrian Army, Reports On Egyptian Military Aid To Syria, November 30, 2016.

[7] It should be mentioned that in 2015, when bin Salman was deputy crown prince, he held a meeting in Riyadh with Syrian National Security Bureau head 'Ali Mamlouk. According to a report in the Al-Hayat daily, at the meeting a proposal was presented to Mamlouk that Iran and its militias would withdraw from Syria, and in return Saudi Arabia would stop its support for the Syrian opposition; in addition, presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in Syria under UN oversight (Al-Hayat, London, October 8, 2015). The meeting, brokered by Russia, yielded no results, but its importance lay in the fact that it was held at all. 

[8], April 3, 2018.

[9] For example, March 30, 2017 statements by then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Assad's longer-term status "will be decided by the Syrian people"; the same day, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that U.S. diplomatic policy on Syria was currently no longer focused on making Assad step down (, March 30, 2017). Additionally, the next day, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that the White House accepts the political reality of Assad's rule (, March 31, 2017).  

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 7, 2018.

[11], August 6, 2018.

[12], July 19, 2017.

[13], March 30, 2018.

[14] Al-Shourouq (Egypt), April 2, 2018.

[15] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 27, 2018.

[16] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), April 3, 2018.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 1, 2018.

[19] On the calls about a year ago to return Syria to the Arab League, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6841, In Advance Of Arab League Summit In Jordan, Calls In Arab Countries To Reinstate Syria's League Membership, March 23, 2017.

[20] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), April 3, 2018.

[21] See for example statements by Al-Shourouq (Egypt) editor 'Imad Al-Din Hussein in the newspaper, April  2, 2018.

[22] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 11, 2018.

[23] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 12, 2018.

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