It's being widely reported that Saudi Arabia is pushing for a regional embrace of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, more than a decade after Syria was booted from the Arab League due to the conflict which burned starting in 2011, chiefly for Damascus' anti-demonstration crackdown.
Reuters first reported this week that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan is planning to extend a formal invitation for Assad to attend an Arab League summit in Riyadh, planned for May 19. This will reportedly take place in person as bin Farhan is expected to soon travel to Damascus. Bloomberg is calling this a "win for Iran".
After diplomatic efforts from gulf states in the wake of the devastating earthquakes which rocked Syria and Turkey in early February sped up, Middle East Eye has reported that "Maher al-Assad, the Syrian president’s brother and head of the feared Fourth Armored Division, reportedly visited Saudi Arabia last month and received the kingdom’s conditions for normalization."
One by one, gulf nations have reembraced Assad. First the Syrian leader visited Oman in February, and the next month he went to UAE with his first lady Asma. Egypt has also sent delegations to Damascus.
Washington has been complaining about these contacts, while watching from the sidelines, as the Pentagon has continued the controversial occupation of oil and gas rich northeast Syria. Importantly, it comes against the backdrop of a China-brokered peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A regional analyst recently observed:
Now, as China takes a more assertive economic diplomacy role in the Middle East, Syria remains key to Saudi Arabia’s desire to cool regional tensions.
Saudi Arabia presented the last obstacle to Syria’s return as a key player in the Arab world - a thaw that began with a hug between the Bahraini and Syrian foreign ministers at the United Nations in 2018.
But still, the Biden administration has taken a softer tone to this rapprochement than hawks were hoping for. A senior US administration official was cited this week as saying Arab states should "get something in return" if they restore ties with Assad.
As the above discussion on Syriana Analysis with regional expert Kamal Alam highlights, times have changed, and that change is coming fast.
A central irony remains, however: Saudi Arabia for years led the way alongside the US in seeking to topple Assad by any means possible. This included supporting jihadists and armed death squads which helped spawn ISIS, as even internal Pentagon memos have admitted.