March 29, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 337

Syrian Efforts to End Its Regional and International Isolation

March 29, 2007 | By H. Varulkar
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 337

For the past two years Syria has been subject to international isolation and pressure. Since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, it has faced growing isolation within the Arab world as well, following an August 15 speech in which Syrian President Bashar Assad termed Arab leaders critical of Hizbullah and Syria "half-men." As a result, top-level Saudi leaders have cut their direct contacts with Assad.[1]

In recent weeks, Syria has been making great efforts to end its isolation, on both the international and the regional/Arab levels.

Syria's first international overture was to the U.S., when on February 5, 2007 Assad stated during an interview on ABC TV that Syria was ready and willing to help in Iraq. He asserted that Syria had "credibility" and "good relations with the other factions [in Iraq]" and that the U.S. "should trust [Syria] to be able to play a role." He added, "We have this good relations[hip] with all the parties... So that's how we can help." [2] Later in the interview, Assad disclosed that he admires George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton.

Syria's second overture was participating, along with the U.S., in a March 10, 2007 conference in Baghdad of the countries neighboring Iraq. Also, in recent weeks there have been prominent statements by senior Syrian officials, among them Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem and his deputy Faisal Al-Miqdad, calling on the U.S. to start a direct dialogue with Syria and saying that Syria was setting no preconditions for such a dialogue.[3]

On the regional/Arab level, Syria's overtures are taking the form of statements of reconciliation by senior Syrian officials directed towards Saudi Arabia, and even an indirect apology by Assad and by Vice President Al-Shar'a for Assad's August 15 speech. It appears that Syria is attempting to repair its relations with Saudi Arabia and with the rest of the Arab countries with whom it clashed in recent months prior to the Arab summit, which is to be held in Riyadh March 28-29.

It should be noted that during the past months, Saudi King Abdullah has vehemently rejected all offers to mediate between himself and Assad, and has demanded that Assad openly apologize.[4]

This paper will focus on Syria's reconciliation overtures in an effort to end its isolation in the Arab region.

Nine Reasons For Deterioration in Saudi-Syrian Relations

In an article in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the paper's former editor who is now the director of Al-Arabiya TV, set out the main reasons for the deterioration in Saudi-Syrian relations:

1) U.N. Security Council Resolution No. 1559, stating that Syria had to evacuate its forces from Lebanon. Saudi Arabia supported this resolution.

2) The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, which Syria is generally thought to have masterminded.

3) The continued assassinations of anti-Syrian political figures in Lebanon.

4) Syria's involvement in facilitating passage through its territory to Saudi citizens on their way to wage jihad in Iraq.

5) Syrian insults to Saudi National Security Council Secretary Bandar bin Sultan and also to the Saudi military attaché in Damascus.

6) The political/media clash between Syria and Saudi Arabia during the war, and Assad's speech on "half-men."

7) Syria's alliance with Iran against the Gulf countries and the other Arab countries

8) Syrian Vice President Al-Shara's December 2006 accusations that Saudi Arabia was turning the dispute between the two countries into a personal matter.

9) Syria's support for Hizbullah's attempts to topple Lebanon's Al-Siniora government.

In his article, Al-Rashed went on to state that at this point, after losing almost everything, Syria saw the Arab summit as a chance to reconcile with Saudi Arabia. This, he said, came after Syria's ally Iran proved itself perfectly willing to sell Syria out at the first opportunity.[5]

Assad's Speech and Apology

Signs of a deep divide between the Hizbullah-Syria-Iran camp and the Sunni camp, headed by Saudi Arabia, were noticeable with the beginning of the July-August 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. During a speech at the fourth conference of the Syrian Journalists' Union in Damascus on August 15, 2006, just as the war ended, Assad leveled harsh and unprecedented criticism against the leaders of the Arab countries, calling them "half-men": "[A positive aspect of this war is that] it exposed the half-men and the people with half-positions, and exposed all the [people with] 'delayed' positions, i.e. those who waited to see where the scale of power would settle before aligning their positions [with those of the victorious side]...."[6]

Assad's speech elicited a furious response from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab countries. The Saudi government dailies published numerous articles attacking Assad for his statements.

In a March 19, 2007 interview in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, Assad apologized indirectly, and spoke at length about his personal relationship with the Saudi king. In answer to a question on Syria-Saudi Arabia relations, Assad said: "They are, first and foremost, historic relations. The role played by Saudi Arabia and Syria in the history of Arab political dynamism is a major one, along with that of Egypt. This of course is not to detract from the status of the other states. These relations have gone through very difficult stages, I mean that the political circumstances that surrounded these relations have always been very difficult... but we see that every time there has been Syrian-Saudi cooperation on a particular issue, a solution has been found. The best example of this is the Ta'if agreement, which is one of the recent and modern examples of Syrian-Saudi cooperation.

"But what has preserved these special political relations... is [Syria's] direct relationship with King Faisal, and then with King Khaled, and then with King Fahd, and now with King Abdullah. Of course, the relationship with King Abdullah began when he was Crown Prince, and even long before – that is, since he was head of the National Guard. These relations, like all inter-Arab relations, are clouded... Recently, a cloud has formed [over these relations], but we have overcome it. Indeed, some things that were written were narrow-minded, as I call it, but they cannot impact something that is historic and longstanding. These things that were written did not necessarily have bad intent...

"Saudi Arabia is a nationalist pan-Arab country, and it is not a state whose identity is restricted to its own territory. It has a nationalist pan-Arab role, and it must play it, and Syria must [play its role] as well. Allah be praised, relations now are good, and we hope that the Arab summit will be a new station in Syrian-Saudi relations and in inter-Arab relations in general...

"My relationship with King Abdullah has not been as long in duration as was Hafez Al-Assad's with King Abdullah, which lasted decades. The relationship between myself and King Abdullah is over a decade in duration, [and began] when he used to come to Syria regularly, from time to time, and meet with President Hafez Al-Assad. There were then several meetings between myself and Prince Abdullah, who today is the king. I think that this was exactly 13 years ago, in 1994. When I returned from my studies in London, I went to Saudi Arabia at the official invitation of King Abdullah, who was then Crown Prince…

"I always say that the relationship between myself and King Abdullah is a family tie, one of brothers. Of course, he is older than I; he belongs to my father's generation. This is a family relationship, in all senses of the word. There is a kind of great honesty between myself and the former prince, and of course now as well.

"Without a doubt, there are many stages, political issues, and particularly this stage. The past five years were very complex, and it is natural that we should have different views. But at many of our meetings, held during the previous stage, we began to speak directly on issues, and we talked transparently. Indeed, King Abdullah is a transparent man, and honest by nature. King Abdullah stood by me [personally] after the death of [my father] Hafez Al-Assad, and everyone in Syria knows that. He was very loyal to Hafez Al-Assad and to Syria, [especially] in the recent period, when Syria was subject to the cruelest of attacks...

"Even when he was Crown Prince, and then when he became king, King Abdullah always clearly defended Syria. Such is the content of the relations between us and King Abdullah. Of course, at the same time, for our part we reciprocate King Abdullah's loyalty. All this is connected to the family ties, to the king's status, and to the relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia. These relations are historic, and popular, and not merely official."[7]

Senior Syrian Officials in Reconciliation Overtures Towards Saudi Arabia

In recent weeks, with the approach of the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, statements by senior Syrian officials praising Syrian-Saudi relations were much in evidence. In an interview with Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam TV, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said: "Syrian-Saudi relations are relations of brotherhood and friendship, since they are sister Arab countries working on a single Arab-Islamic level, and working for the just Arab issues in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq..."[8]

Syrian Minister of Expatriate Affairs Buthayna Sha'ban also discussed the relationship. She said: "The relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia are close relations. It is true that they have had ups and downs, but this does not in any way mean that the real connection is cut off. The Saudi role and the Syrian role are both important in order to regulate the situation in the region." Sha'ban argued that Assad's immediate response to the Saudi King's invitation to the Arab summit was proof of the depth of the relations between the two countries.[9]

It should be noted that in the context of its reconciliation overtures to Saudi Arabia, Syria took credit for the Saudis' success in drawing up the Mecca agreement that brought about a Palestinian unity government. An editorial in the Syrian government daily Teshreen stated that on February 11, 2007, "the roots" of the Mecca agreement were put down, in a January 21, 2007 meeting in Damascus between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al, and "the fruit was Mecca."[10] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar quoted sources who had visited Syria and said that "Syria played a crucial role in the Mecca agreement" and that "Saudi Arabia knows that the articles of the agreement were determined in Syria, and that it was Syria that pushed for the agreement to be signed in Saudi Arabia.[11] The London daily Al-Hayat quoted Lebanese sources as saying that "Syria urged Khaled Mash'al to participate in the Mecca conference, in order to prepare the way for restoring the Saudi leadership's trust in the Syrian leadership..."[12]

Reconciliation Overtures Towards Egypt

As mentioned, the Egyptian leadership too was furious at Assad over his August 2006 statements, and relations between Syria and Egypt have since been clouded. On March 13, 2007, Syrian Vice President Al-Shara' went to Egypt in an attempt to reconcile with the Egyptians, and to persuade them to mediate between Syria and Saudi Arabia in advance of the Arab summit. After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Al-Shara' stated that Assad, in his August 2006 speech, had "not been referring to any Arab leaders." According to Al-Shara', what Assad meant by the expression "half-men" was "some of the small leaders in some of the Arab countries." With regard to news items about Saudi Arabia's expectation of an apology or clarification from Assad regarding his statements, Al-Shar' said that no clarification would be forthcoming, because it was a mistake by the media, that misinterpreted the speech. The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that Al-Shara' sought to organize a meeting between Assad and Mubarak, perhaps even with the participation of the Saudi King, even prior to the Arab summit, but that Mubarak rejected the request.[13]

*H. Varulkar is a Research Fellow at MEMRI

[1] For Assad's speech, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1256, "Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad Praises the Resistance, Harshly Criticizes Arab Leaders, and Threatens Israel," August 22, 2006, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad Praises the Resistance, Harshly Criticizes Arab Leaders, and Threatens Israel . For more on the disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Syria over Hizbullah's July 2006 abduction of IDF soldiers that led to the war, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1234, "Debate in the Arab Countries – Is Hizbullah a ‘Resistance’ Organization or Not? Cracks in the United Arab Position on Hizbullah's Right to ‘Resistance’ Against Israel," August 7, 2006, Debate in the Arab Countries – Is Hizbullah a ‘Resistance’ Organization or Not? Cracks in the United Arab Position on Hizbullah's Right to ‘Resistance’ Against Israel .

[2] ABC News, February 5, 2007, .

[3] Teshreen (Syria), March 12, 2007; Al-Anbaa (Kuwait), March 24, 2007.

[4] Over the past two months, there have been reports of efforts to mediate between the two countries, but it has also been reported that the Saudi king has rejected all such attempts. On January 10, 2007, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai wrote that a senior Saudi source had said that Saudi Arabia was not interested in renewing contacts with Syria, and had rejected the notion out of hand. The source quoted Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal as responding with a "No way!" The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that Salim Al-Hoss, who met with the Saudi king on February 18, 2007, heard from the king that he was very angry at Assad's "half-men" statements, that this could not be ignored, and that he was demanding clarification from Syria regarding the statements. Al-Hoss, who the next day met with Assad, conveyed the King's statements to him, and Assad stated that he respected the Saudi leadership but that "it was Saudi Arabia and other countries that had accused him, during the July 2007 Israel-Lebanon war, of being an 'adventurous child'... and so it is he [i.e. Assad] who should be receiving apologies from others." On March 17, 2007, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported that the previous week, the Saudi king had refused to respond to an attempt by Yemen President 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to mediate between him and Assad. The paper quoted senior officials close to the Saudi king as claiming that the king had rejected efforts to persuade him to meet anywhere with Assad or to invite him to Saudi Arabia, because he was angry over Assad's August 2006 speech. According to the sources, the king said: "We will meet [Assad] like the rest [of the Arab leaders] during the Arab summit, and then he will tell us whether we're men enough or not." Al-Rai, (Kuwait), January 10, 2007; Al-Akhbar, (Lebanon), February 22, 2007; Al-Akhbar, (Lebanon), March 17, 2007.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 4, 2007. It should be noted that an additional factor that clouded relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia in recent months is the fact that in January 2007 Syria foiled the draft agreement for a solution to the crisis in Lebanon drawn up by Saudi Arabia and Iran over the course of contacts and talks led by Bandar bin Sultan and Ali Larijani. Larijani traveled to Syria to present it the draft agreement, but Syria refused to accept it, due to its opposition to the establishment of an international tribunal for the Al-Hariri assassination, thus in essence foiling the agreement. Following this, violent clashes broke out in Lebanon. The Iranian-Saudi contacts were renewed after these clashes, but Lebanese sources have reported that Syria continues to foil agreement. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 320, "The Middle East on a Collision Course (1): Recent Saudi-Iranian Contacts to Resolve the Lebanon Crisis," January 31, 2007, The Role of the Arab Media: An Historical Perspective;

Inquiry and Analysis No. 323, "The Middle East on a Collision Course (3): The Lebanese-Syrian Front," February 7, 2007, Saudi Columnists: Urbanization and Development in Southern Saudi Arabia, Not Poverty, Led to September 11;

Inquiry and Analysis No. 324, "The Middle East on a Collision Course (4): Saudi/Sunni – Iranian/Shi'ite Conflict – Diplomacy and Proxy Wars," February 9, 2007, Jordanian Columnist: Arab anger at Thomas Friedman unwarranted.

[6] SANA news agency (Syria), August 15, 2006.

[7] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), March 19, 2007.

[8] Teshreen (Syria), March 4, 2007.

[9] Akhbar Al-Sharq website, (London), March 1, 2007.

[10] Teshreen (Syria), February 11, 2007.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 16, 2007.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), February 14, 2007.

[13] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 14, 2007. It should be noted that in advance of the Arab summit, Syrian Vice President Farouq Al-Shara' visited Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Tunisia and gave the leaders of these countries letters from Assad on "reinforcing the joint Arab activity and coordination of positions prior to the Arab summit at Riyadh." However, on March 25, 2007, it was suddenly reported that Al-Shara' had gone also to Kuwait, which was highly significant because Syria's relations with Kuwait have been tense in recent years. Al-Shara met with the Emir of Kuwait, and gave him a letter from Assad on "coordination between the two countries at the upcoming Arab summit and on bilateral relations." Teshreen, Syria, March 19, 2007; Teshreen, March 25, 2007.

Share this Report: