Jeddah summit: A Saudi role and Syrian approval

If Syria fell as was intended for it in 2011, the official Arab system would have fallen, and we would have experienced a system of another kind. Furthermore, we would have moved from the era of the modern Arab state to the era of the “Isis”, which Barack Obama founded, as Hillary Clinton acknowledged in her memoirs.

The Arab region is experiencing unprecedented diplomatic activity, which we have not had since 2011, which aims at returning to before this fateful year, and seeking to embrace Damascus by Arabs again so that it can return to the joint Arab action as it has always been.

Today, after everyone is convinced of the failure of all Arab approaches to resolving the crisis in Syria, it is no longer possible to return to the approaches of those years. Rather, we must search for new approaches that take into consideration what happened on the ground.

As for the conditions, it has been proven that no one is able to impose them on Syria, which was able to continue and stand firm in the face of these difficulties, and thwarted all attempts targeting its survival and existence. However, as for the Arab consultations, they are always welcomed by Damascus, which announced from the first day of its crisis its openness to any Arab experience in democracy and the transfer of power, and how these countries deal with the political opposition in it.

Moreover, the severance of diplomatic relations with Syria reflects the inability to know the significance of establishing these relations, and that they are established among countries, not among their authorities, for authority is one thing and the state is another.

All of this forced everyone to think with some deliberation, and to stay away from the inflation of the ego that led some states to not know their weight and influence on the international scene after some state thought that its functional role, which was drawn for it, might make it a leader in its regional environment, especially if this environment is torn apart and weakened, so some may not want to acknowledge Syria’s victory, for how can a country that has been destroyed claim victory! This is the superficial approach to what happened in Syria.

However, the realistic approach tells us that what I want for Damascus is much greater than that; Syria has been targeted in its history and civilization, which it is proud of, so that it will return like other countries whose age does not exceed the normal human lifespan.

The division of the world and the victory of the allies of Damascus:

The world is experiencing the formation of new patterns of relations among states, whose goal is the pursuit of some countries to get a better position in the international arena, or to prepare to face upcoming challenges that target the existence and entity of the state, and our Arab region is not out from this rule.

It seems that the Arab region is likely to be another arena for settling scores of major powers in their seeking to formulate a new world order which its first feature will be the end of the unipolar era and the emergence of other poles. Since World War II, major countries no longer fight each other (direct wars), but rather they fight with small countries, and seek confrontation on their lands, and make the people of those countries bear the costs for those wars.

The outbreak of the war in Ukraine made it the first arena for those battles, but it may not be the last. There are other regions of the world that are likely to explode at any moment. The first of these regions is the South China Sea region, and the Middle East region, which throughout its history has been paying the price of the international conflicts produced by the structure of the existing international system, whether it is bipolar or unipolar later.

The Europeans fell into the trap and became the first to pay the price of the struggle for international hegemony, and the European peoples began to lose the prosperity that they had experienced for decades, during which their countries were able to plunder the wealth of the people and enslave them. However, China, which is the greatest competitor to the United States and a real threat to it, still succeeds in avoiding transferring the international conflict to it, or to its surrounding regional environment.

The countries of the Middle East, especially the Arab countries, Iran and even Turkey, have begun to feel this danger, and seek to avoid it or prepare to confront it, and this is certainly a good thing, so from this point the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation happened, which was the key to resolving many contentious issues in the region, especially the Syrian issue.

Then, the Arab countries began to seek to join forces in preparation for what is coming, especially in light of the internal turmoil Israel is going through, and its feeling of weakness after the success of the Chinese initiative, and the restoration of relations between Iran and the Gulf states. Those states began recalculating, and slowing down their rush towards normalization with the Zionist entity, in which they used to consider it as an ally standing with them against the alleged “Iranian threat”.

The Kingdom’s desire to be the capital of Arab decision-making:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began to change its political orientations towards Syria for several reasons, including: the major change in the leadership of the Kingdom, after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died in 2015, and King Salman assumed the throne. King Abdullah was a supporter of political change in Syria, due to considerations related to Hariri’s killing in Lebanon, the Syrian alliance with Tehran, and many other issues.

However, with the arrival of King Salman, a change occurred in the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as Saud Al-Faisal, the former foreign minister, was dismissed after keeping in his position for four decades (1975-2015). This means King Salman’s desire to formulate a new approach in the orinations of the Kingdom’s foreign policy. Al-Faisal had played a major role in escalating the Saudi position on Syria, and he was the last foreign minister from the ruling family, where he was succeeded by Adel Al-Jubeir, who was dismissed in connection with the Khashoggi case, then Ibrahim Al-Assaf came after him, and then Faisal bin Farhan who is the current minister.

With Prince Muhammad bin Salman assuming the throne, he sought to pursue a foreign policy that was completely different from the previous one, so the United States is no longer the only ally of the Kingdom due to personal and national considerations as President Biden had pledged not to deal with him during his election campaign because he was accused of killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi who holds American nationality.

The kingdom began to turn east towards Russia and China, in search of an ally capable of replacing the United States in the future because the relationship with America is strategic and deep-rooted, and it cannot end quickly, and when the war happened in Ukraine, the kingdom’s importance to the world increased in light of the US and Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, and the need of the world and Europe for Saudi oil. As a result, the visit of the Chinese president to the Kingdom, and the holding of three summits there, (a Chinese-Saudi summit, a Chinese-Gulf summit, and a Chinese-Arab summit) was to perpetuate the importance of the Kingdom as a leader of the countries of the Arab region.

The Kingdom and its desire to eliminate problems:

Prince Mohammed bin Salman felt the importance of eliminating problems with neighboring countries, especially Arab ones, for several reasons, including:

  • Enhancing his control over the kingdom and ensuring the transfer of authority to him in the future quietly and smoothly, especially since there is opposition to him within the ruling family as he will be the first king from the descendants of King Abdulaziz, the founder, and not from his sons.
  • The unstable relationship with the United States, and the desire to start achieving more independence for the kingdom’s political decision.
  • Investing in the repercussions of the Ukrainian war on oil prices, and on the Kingdom’s growing international position.
  • Dedication to the internal situation and implementing the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
  • Working to improve the Kingdom’s reputation in the world, by initiating a policy of openness and strengthening the status of women.

The role of Saudi Arabia in bringing Syria back to its Arab surroundings:

Despite previous calls for the return of Syria to its Arab surroundings and their importance, which were led by the Sultanate of Oman, Algeria and the UAE, they did not achieve significant results on the Arab level perhaps due to for the kingdom’s opposition at the time, or for its desire to play this role that makes it as the leader of the Arab regional system.

This system, which was formed after the establishment of the Arab League in 1945, and which dedicated Egypt as its leader for decades.

Syria also played a major role in preserving it and bringing together its members, until the saying that “Syria is the beating heart of Arabism” was perpetuated, and this saying was proved true to everyone after Syria left the Arab League in 2012, as we no longer witness any form of joint Arab action, and the university’s image became dim in the eyes of many Arab people.

They wanted to weaken Syria, and even destroy it, after Iraq was destroyed and removed from the balances of the region as an active force, and even a balancing element in the region.

The kingdom discovered that it might not remain apart from the events in the region, especially since the partition plans were targeting it as well, so a new vision and strategic approach was necessary to stop this Arab decline and weakness. The first result of the “Arab Spring” was the destruction of the so-called “Northern Arab countries” (Iraq, Syria and Egypt), so that the centers of power and weight shifted to the Arab Gulf countries (the southern countries), due to considerations related to the economic conditions of these countries, and the complexity in their international relations.

Today, the return of Syria to its Arab surroundings has become a reality, given the rapid development in bilateral relations between Syria and the Arab countries, and as for the refusal of Syria’s return to the Arab League, it is now revealing the weakness in the charter of this league and the need to reform it because how can a small country stand in the way of the Arab consensus and prevent Syria from returning to the Arab League, of which it is a founding member, when that state was perhaps non-existent?

Syria and the Arabs with agreements, not conditions:

After the visit of the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, to Riyadh, it appeared from the joint final statement as if the Kingdom was seeking to establish a way for a political solution in Syria, through its endeavor to invest its regional and international position, and the need for it by the conflicting parties. Moreover, it seemed clear that this statement was formulated in consultation and agreement between the two countries, to serve as an alternative to the Jordanian initiative, which was called the step-by-step initiative. So Syria wants to find a solution to its problem, seeks to bring back its people, and believes that the Arab role should be an encouraging role, not an obstruction one.

Then the Arab summit was held in Jeddah, with the participation of nine Arab countries (6 + 3), which brought together the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, in an attempt by the Kingdom to zero in the number of countries opposing Syria’s attendance at the Arab summit scheduled to be held in Riyadh next month in light of the opposition of five countries to the return of Syria to the university, namely Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen.

Despite the summit’s failure to achieve its goal, no joint statement was issued, but only a statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry was issued. However, this will not discourage the Kingdom from its endeavor to promote Syria’s return to the Arab League, especially since the Kingdom, by virtue of its great influence, seeks to find a solution to this. Most of those who reject Saudi efforts are the State of Qatar, but this will eventually be resolved especially in light of the Arab openness to Damascus, which will make whoever wants to isolate Syria is isolating himself in reality.

Although the attendees did not agree on Syria’s return to the Arab League, they adopted the joint statement drafted by the Syrian-Saudi bilateral meeting, which emphasized the unity of the Syrian territories and the strengthening of the Syrian government’s authority over all its territory.

What remains is that the Kingdom plays a role in persuading Turkey of the need to withdraw from the Syrian territories, especially since it has contributed to saving the Turkish economy by placing a large deposit of $5 billion in Turkish banks, in addition to the international community’s endeavor to lift the siege on Syria, after obtaining an Arab mandate to do so, given that it will be the head of the next Arab summit.

All of these endeavors would not have been successful without the presence of a firm and principled Syrian foreign policy that is open to the Arab world and forgetful of the wounds of the past in its dealings with its regional and international affairs.

Shaher Al Shaher
Shaher Al Shaher
Associate Professor School of International Studies Sun Yat-Sen University/ China Professor at the Faculty of Political Science - University of Damascus (previously)