Trump lets a big cat out of a small bag
Earlier today, US President Donald Trump re-confirmed that when US troops are fully withdrawn from their positions in north-eastern Syria, Turkish troops will replace the departed American ones and as such will fight the remnants of Daesh. While Trump did not mention that Turkey will also neutralise the YPG/PKK terror group which in Syria had been allied with the United States, this reality is clearly implied – thus signifying the end of the YPG/USA partnership of mutual opportunism.
But while Turkey replacing the US as the major force in north-eastern Syria follows clear logic, what is less apparent is a possible forthcoming rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. While Saudi Arabia had been a major backer of forces fighting the Assad government throughout the duration of the present conflict, there now exists a distinct possibility that Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies will use 2019 to pave the way for a re-establishing of relations with Damascus.
Now, Donald Trump has issued a Tweet that is highly significant in respect of hinting at a 2019 Saudi-Syria rapprochement:
“Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. See? Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away. Thanks to Saudi A!”
Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. See? Isn’t it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away. Thanks to Saudi A!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2018
To understand the significance of this, one must understand that apart from soon to be Turkish controlled areas in north-eastern Syria, parts of Turkish controlled northern Aleppo and Idlib Governorates, militant controlled parts of Idlib under a Russo-Turkish enforced ceasefire and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, the rest of Syria is now back under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s government. This includes the vast majority of major cities in the country.
Therefore, logic would dictate that any Saudi reconstruction funds would be largely going into areas controlled by Assad, not least because any areas controlled by Turkey would be effective no-go areas for Turkey’s regional Saudi rival.
With this crucial context in mind, the world may soon witness the situation of a Turkey that is somewhat reconciled to its NATO partner America extending its physical control over more parts of Syria while Saudi Arabia attempts to exude financial power and even some soft power over parts of Syria controlled by Riyadh’s putative “enemy” Bashar al-Assad.
How did we get here?
As the future will see Syria holding nationwide elections based on a new constitution that has yet to be written, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, even long time opponents of Bashar al-Assad are admitting the likelihood that he will retain power after new elections. This was confirmed when Turkey’s influential Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said the following on 16 December:
“Everyone should consider working with Assad if he wins democratic elections”.
But it is not only Turkey that is considering the possibility of reconciliation with their nemesis in Damascus. The Riyadh orchestrated murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi helped to highlight a reality that existed even prior to Khashoggi’s grim demise. The fact of the matter is that while as recently as three years ago, Saudi Arabia and its Gulfi partners viewed toppling fellow Arab leader Bashar al-Assad as a crucial regional priority, today Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Turkey is becoming a more pressing and passionate priority.
While in many ways Saudi Arabia has already lost the battle for soft power in the broader western Eurasian and African Sunni Muslim world to Turkey, Saudi Arabia may turn to an unlikely partner to at least attempt to change some of this. Reports that Saudi Arabia’s closest ally the UAE is making moves to re-open its embassy in Damascus, indicates that at a behind the scenes level that the public only knows small bits about, there is already momentum behind a Syrian Ba’athist-GCC reconciliation.
The aim of this reconciliation is of course to play on Syria’s pan-Arabist politics and the anti-Turkish sentiments that run high among many of Bashar al-Assad’s supporters. Saudi Arabia’s broader goal is to try and counterbalance Turkey’s popularity among members of the Syrian opposition while also helping to normalise the leadership of a strong Arab President who is self-evidently going to remain in power one way or another.
And yet for Damascus, this could also help to put Russia and Iran in a position of gently nudging both Ankara and Damascus towards the kind of pragmatic political normalisation that the Turkish Foreign Minister just spoke of with a surprising level of optimism. This is because Russia and especially Iran would not want Syria to join Saudi Arabia’s anti-Turkish (and anti-Iranian) “geopolitical jihad”, but instead would seek to balance restored Damascus-GCC relations with restored Damascus-Ankara relations. This is because Russia seeks an overall sense of balance in the region while Iran is a partner of Turkey that happens to be Saudi Arabia’s primary adversary. Iran would therefore worry about its main rival developing relations with its ally Bashar al-Assad and because of this, Iran could help to smooth out the obvious pitfalls in a much needed Ankara-Damascus normalisation process, for its own self-interested but nevertheless benign reasons.
A secret MBS-Assad meeting in 2019?
While Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto Saudi leader Mohammad in Salman (MBS) is certainly not a popular figure in Syrian Ba’athist circles (quite the opposite is true), because MBS only became Riyadh’s defence minister in 2015 while becoming Crown Prince in 2017, MBS’s hands are comparatively (key word) cleaner than older figures in Riyadh (including victims of MBS’s infamous purge) when it comes to meddling in Syria. While many Syrians still believe that MBS has much to answer for, generally, pro-Assad Syrians tend to reserve more ire for Turkey’s President than for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince.
In fitting with Riyadh’s desire to balance Damascus’s reliance on Iran while playing on the anti-Turkish sentiments of Assad’s political base, it is now entirely possible that a personal meeting will be arranged in 2019 where Assad and MBS will meet in secret to discuss a future rapprochement. Such arrangements might already be underway as Trump’s Tweet makes it clear that Saudi money will be coming into Syria and logic would dictate that most if not all of this money will be coming into Assad controlled parts of the country.
In the context of deeply inter-personal politics in the Arab world, it is highly conceivable that a private meeting of some variety has already been arranged. After all, if MBS has had semi-private and private meetings with top Israeli officials over the last year, it is all the more conceivable that he could engage in something similar with a fellow Arab, Bashar al-Assad. Possible “neutral” venues for such a meeting include Jordan, Egypt or Oman, while Russia is also a prime candidate as Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys warm personal and political relations with both MBS and Assad and as such would likely play a major role in organising such a meeting. Furthermore, as such a secret meeting would require the utmost security, Russia is uniquely placed to provide this for both prominent men.
2019 was already shaping up to be a year where much of received wisdom about alliances in Syria was going to be turned on its head. Thanks to Donald Trump’s love of Twitter, the world has now gained valuable insight regarding the future of Damascus-Riyadh relations.