The devastating earthquake that tore through Syria and Turkey two weeks ago has left cities in ruin and tens of thousands dead. But as humanitarian assistance began to pour in, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad found himself at the center of attention.
After years in the political wilderness, Assad is now taking a steady stream of calls and visitors, and on Feb. 20, he went on a red carpet visit to Oman. Earthquake diplomacy seems to be working out well for Assad, and there are even signs that Saudi Arabia — long the main obstacle to Syria’s reintegration in Arab politics — has softened its approach.
Since the earthquake, Syrian state media has reveled in the many supportive messages and delegations received by the president. In addition to visiting Syrian allies from Lebanon, Assad hosted the Emirati and Jordanian foreign ministers. He also spoke on the phone, for the first time, with King Hamad of Bahrain and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Analysts note that the diplomatic activity emanates mainly from governments that already have working ties with Damascus, but it still matters. “Arab states that have normalized or want to normalize see in this catastrophe a platform to accelerate their efforts, through phone calls and visits,” Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Assad, too, seems to sense an opportunity. On Feb. 13, a day after receiving Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, the Syrian leader offered a rare goodwill gesture by temporarily expanding United Nations aid workers access to a rebel-controlled region. It seemed less like a sudden pang of humanitarian concern and more like a calculated attempt to reap the benefits of an auspicious diplomatic moment.
UAE leading the push
The widespread perception that the United Arab Emirates' top diplomat had something to do with Assad’s decision underlines Abu Dhabi’s prominent role in Syria diplomacy. The UAE reopened its Damascus embassy in 2018. Since then, Abu Dhabi has led the campaign for Assad’s return to regional and international politics.
“The UAE has, since 2021, embarked on a policy of diminishing tensions with other countries in the region, and normalizing with Assad is part of that,” said Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who recently published a book on Emirati foreign policy.
“They started this earlier than other countries in the region. It comes following a general reckoning that he’s here to stay — for now at least — and therefore they’re better placed to counter countries like Iran by building relationships — and potentially some economic dependence — with Tehran’s friends than by maintaining their antagonizing stance,” Esfandiary told Al-Monitor.
The Emirati campaign has drawn Western frowns and finger-wagging, but no serious pushback. It enjoys a receptive audience in the Middle East, where most nations are now back on speaking terms with Damascus. Even though Assad is a polarizing figure and many Arab leaders remain wary of his ties to Iran, they also want Syria to stabilize after more than a decade of violent chaos. In addition to the UAE, Algeria, Iraq, Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain and to some extent Egypt, they have all pushed for changes to what they see as a failed US-inspired strategy of isolation and sanctions in Syria.
Last December, a Russia-brokered Turkish-Syrian defense minister meeting in Moscow marked a turning point in Assad’s campaign for regional acceptance. Bitter disagreements between Ankara and Damascus remain and a shift to transactional bargaining seems more likely than a revival of friendly ties, but that is still a step up from boycott and conflict.
Even so, Syria is a broken and nearly bankrupt country after years of war. It has little to offer other nations, and the regime’s political intransigence has exhausted many otherwise friendly interlocutors. As a result, the Assad government’s regional reintegration remains incomplete at best. For example, Syria is still suspended from the Arab League, a symbolic slight that must be undone if Assad aspires to broader normalization. In fact, Algeria broke a serious diplomatic sweat trying to secure a Syrian re-invitation while organizing the November 2022 Arab League summit, but failed to overcome Saudi and other objections.
Saudi Arabia: Assad's last hurdle?
Indeed, Saudi Arabia remains the main obstacle to Assad’s rehabilitation in the Middle East. Saudi-Syrian relations have always been rocky, and for decades they alternated between periods of relative harmony—during which Riyadh often slipped little gifts to the chronically cash-strapped Assad regime—and vicious competition. Although neither regime held much love for the other, ties only ruptured completely in 2011, when Saudi Arabia threw its weight behind the calls for Assad’s removal—and over the following years, Saudi money would instead be used to bankroll the rebels trying to kill him.
Those days are now long over, but the kingdom has maintained its diplomatic boycott. Although Saudi leaders no longer entertain any hopes for regime change, Riyadh finds the close relationship between Damascus and Tehran a hard pill to swallow. In the Iran-friendly Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Mustafa Shalash noted that Riyadh and Damascus differ on numerous issues. “[They] still have a long way to go before they can reach the point of normalization,” he wrote.
But as was the case with Turkey, something less than full normalization would also make a difference — and after the earthquake, there are signs that the Saudis have begun to soften their position.
The arrival of the 6th Saudi relief plane to support earthquake victims in #Syria and #Turkey pic.twitter.com/a63dnkqhjZ— KSrelief (@KSRelief_EN) February 11, 2023
After first sending an aid convoy to rebel-held regions through Turkey, Saudi Arabia began to fly in aid via government-held Aleppo. On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud insisted at the Munich Security Conference, that “the status quo is not workable,” and that the world will need to engage with Damascus “at some point” on issues like refugees and humanitarian aid. Asked whether he plans to visit Syria, the Saudi prince said he would not entertain “rumors,” which did little to dampen speculation.
If Assad’s earthquake diplomacy succeeds in improving relations with Saudi Arabia, the path to normalization in Arab politics will be wide open.