A Saudi diplomat said Monday that the kingdom had appointed a new ambassador to Syria, the strongest sign yet of the solidifying reconciliation between the two rival Arab nations.
The United States and its Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, have been working to boost ties with Syria in recent weeks in hopes of pulling it out of the fold of Iran and Islamic militant groups in the region. Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia soured after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, a close Saudi ally. Syria was widely blamed for his death, but has denied any responsibility. Saudi Arabia subsequently transferred its ambassador from Syria to Qatar in 2008, leaving the post vacant.
An official at the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Syria had approved the appointment of a Saudi ambassador, identifying the diplomat as Abdullah al-Eifan. The diplomat at the Saudi Embassy in Damascus said he would assume the post soon. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the appointment was not yet official, and gave no further details.
"Saudi Arabian-Syrian relations are notoriously edgy, and by reappointing an ambassador the Saudis are hoping to work with Washington and [US President Barack] Obama to pull Syria out of the Iranian fold," said Matthew RJ Brodsky, Legacy Heritage fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. "The idea put forth by the Obama administration is that it is possible to effectively flip Syria from Iran. It is within that context that Saudi Arabia is currently engaging with Syria. And to the extent that Syria behaves in the region, the easier it will be for the US to accomplish its agenda in the Middle East," Brodsky added.
The Saudi appointment is an indication of a rumored Saudi-Syrian summit, set to convene in the coming week in Damascus. Arabic media sources Al-Manar and Al-Jazeera have both reported on rumors that Lebanese President Said Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, will also be present at the summit. The Al-Liwaa newspaper also reported that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently visited Damascus to discuss the Syrian-Saudi talks. "Hizbullah does not feel secure right now because they didn't perform well in the recent Lebanese elections, and they aren't sure of Syria's intentions. Now they are attempting to work with the Hariri coalition in order to ensure their participation," said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at STRATFOR Global Intelligence.
Syria hopes to reconsolidate their influence in Lebanon and is conveying to the Americans and the Saudis that recognition of Syria's leverage in Lebanon will have its rewards. "Syria wants diplomatic recognition from the US and the Saudis, and is trying to show the US that it can contain Hizbullah politically and militarily. Of course, Syria tends to ask much and give little in return in these negotiations, so this will all be done piecemeal and all while Syria works to assure the Iranians that remains their ally. Syria will not totally cut off relations with Hizbullah or Iran, and we may see a Syrian-Iranian summit follow the Syrian-Saudi summit, in order to reassure Iran," said Bhalla.
Despite signs of warming relations between Syria, the United States and Saudi Arabia, Syria's juggling act could spell future disappointment. "Saudi Arabia enjoyed warmer relations with Syria during the 1990s and their recent moves point to their desire to see what is now possible with Syria. Nevertheless, there is room for much skepticism because Syria has a history of making promises and not fulfilling them. All of these recent diplomatic moves made toward Syria benefit the Assad regime. But it remains to be seen whether it will lead to a lasting behavioral change in Damascus," said Brodsky.