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Syria's Assad lands in Saudi Arabia seeking financial incentives at Arab summit

Robert Ford, the last US ambassador to Syria, said the Jeddah summit will likely end with “nice promises” in front of the cameras but a different outcome in reality as normalization with Assad, overriding sanctions and the return of refugees face mounting hurdles.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan meets Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in Damascus on April 18, 2023. - Saudi Press Agency

DUBAI — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed in Saudi Arabia on Thursday in what  publicly marked his most triumphant moment on the Arab stage since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. The visit, Assad’s return and participation in the Arab League has been met with US scrutiny and skepticism over what Damascus can offer.

The Syrian presidency announced on Thursday that Assad will be in Jeddah on Thursday and Friday, his first visit to the kingdom in over a decade. It will be his first time at the Arab summit since his government’s readmission to the organization earlier this month. 

Assad is expected to steal the spotlight at the summit, which is taking place despite opposition from the United States and some Arab countries. 

The motivation to bring Syria back to the Arab League is a matter of national security for certain member countries, experts say, and one that overlaps with the refugees issue and the Captagon drug smuggling. 

They include Jordan, which is home to 1.3 million Syrians and also faces the direct impact of the multi-billion-dollar black market for Captagon, a highly addictive drug that travels through Jordan from the Syrian-Lebanese border to reach Gulf Arab States including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to the Washington-based Arab Center. 

Jordan’s King Abdullah II met with his Saudi Arabia and UAE counterparts ahead of the summit in April to highlight these issues, and Amman carried out a rare airstrike inside Syria this month targeting a drug smuggler. 

Robert Ford, veteran US diplomat and the last US ambassador to Syria, said Assad's motivation to get reinstated in the league is in large part financial. His state's economy is shattered after 12 years of warfare and two major earthquakes in February. 

Ford told Al-Monitor that Assad will utilize the refugee issue to attract financial incentives. “Syria is set to make various promises and say that if we do not receive financial support we can’t rebuild Syria so that refugees can come home, or strengthen our security forces to block the drug trade,” the former diplomat said.

He expects that the Jeddah summit will likely end with “nice promises” in front of the cameras but a different outcome in reality. Normalization with Assad, overriding sanctions and the return of the refugees all face mounting hurdles. 

Ford argued that Assad has no intention of bringing back Syrian refugees anytime soon and that Gulf states will face American pressure if they try to transfer any funds to support Syrian security forces. 

“Gulf states are suddenly going to find that the US is breathing down their necks if any transfers of funding to the Assad government are made," he said. 

As first reported by Al-Monitor, US Democratic and Republican lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill to expand on Washington’s ability to impose sanctions on Syria by enhancing the Caesar Act of 2020 last Thursday. It's seen as a warning to other countries seeking to normalize relations with Assad and ahead of the summit. 

Yet if Saudi Arabia and others succumb to US pressure and do not deliver on prospective summit agreements for financing, the status quo might return. 

“In a sense, Syria is using [halting the Captagon trade] as leverage against the Gulf states,” said Ford, who believes that if Assad realizes he’s not getting the expected aid, the drug business will ramp up once again. 

 Conflicting strategies 

But even in Saudi Arabia, there is no free lunch, and Assad would have to deliver before any financial aid flows into Damascus.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan publicized the kingdom’s Saudi first policy to spending and global matters in January. It resulted in a chain reaction of diplomatic actions such as a China-brokered normalization agreement with Iran two months later in March, discussions about ending the seven-year war in Yemen and reinstating Syria into the Arab League. All of them will likely be discussed at the Jeddah-summit and pique US interest.

This seemingly new approach is a culmination of events in recent years that have seen the kingdom’s young leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, work to reduce Saudi dependency on the United States for its security. It all started with the drone attacks on the kingdom’s Abqaiq oil refineries in 2019, according to Ford. 

“Until 2019, the Saudi strategy was essentially to deter Iran from attacking and to rely on the Americans if Iran did attack. Then with the Trump administration’s refusal to strike Iran after that very blatant attack on a major facility, I think that sobered the Saudis dramatically,” he said. This mood, he added, was heightened by President Joe Biden’s vow to make the kingdom a “pariah” in 2019 and by the release of intelligence reports finding the Saudi government responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Saudi Arabia’s more recent strategy to solve the regional refugee and drug problem emerging from Syria is to use diplomacy and financial support, countering the ongoing US approach of heightening sanctions. 

Ford said, “The Americans offered no viable alternative except more of the same sanctions that weren't going to fix the refugee problem in Jordan, the Captagon problem and long-term humanitarian aid access to north western Syria,” adding that he doesn’t expect the United States to budge on its Syria policies. 

“The US is still in hegemony mode. Washington hasn’t fully absorbed this idea of a multipolar world system,” Ford told Al-Monitor. 

Packed agenda

The annual Arab League Summit has no lack of discussion topics this year as members seek solutions to other ongoing conflicts such as the Yemen and Palestinian-Israeli crisis and more recent ones like Sudan’s civil war that set off again in April.

Economic issues such as trade and energy opportunities with China are on the table as the country invests politically and financially in the Middle East. Beijing signed 40 deals with Saudi Arabia in December 2022 during President Xi Jinping’s three-day visit. The UAE signed multiple nuclear agreements earlier this month and was part of China’s first ever yuan-settled energy deal in March, involving some 65,000 tons of Emirati liquified natural gas.

At yesterday’s preparatory meeting and handover ceremony, Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf delivered the presidency to Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who called for Arab unity to overcome the region’s obstacles. 

“We [must] stand together and exert more efforts to strengthen joint Arab action in order to confront them and find appropriate solutions to them, so that our region becomes safe and stable,” said Faisal, according to the government’s Saudi Press Agency.

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