Steven Sahiounie, journalist and political commentator
The shifting sands of the Middle East were caught up in a whirlwind last month, as the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran in China was announced. The two rival powerhouses of the region have decided to work towards peace and prosperity for both nations.
How will this new relationship affect Syria, the US, Israel, Turkey and the Arab League? To gain insight into this surprising development in the region, Steven Sahiounie of MidEastDiscourse interviewed Elijah J. Magnier, a veteran war-zone correspondent and political analyst with over 35 years of experience covering the Middle East and North Africa.
Magnier has covered many of the key wars and military clashes in the region, including the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Iraq-Iran War, the Lebanese Civil War, the Gulf War of 1991, the 1992 – 1996 war in the former Yugoslavia, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and subsequent war and occupation, the second Lebanon War in 2006, as well as the more recent wars in both Libya (2011) and Syria (2011-2019). Having lived for many years in Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria, Elijah J. Magnier possesses unique insights into local cultural and tribal affairs, geopolitical realities and trends, and the history of a region that continues to pose challenges for both its residents and the world.
#1. Steven Sahiounie (SS): The Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia will travel to Damascus to invite Syrian President Assad to the upcoming Arab League Summit scheduled for May 19 in Riyadh. How significant is this end of isolation for Syria, and what does this mean for the US relationship with Saudi Arabia?
Elijah J. Magnier (EJM): It is clear that Saudi Arabia no longer considers only the US interest, but also the Saudi interest to end all conflicts in the Middle East and start a new relationship with its neighbors, even if they fall under illegal US and EU sanctions. Saudi Arabia has stopped funding the jihadists and takfiris in Syria since 2015. Since then, there have been several meetings between officials from the two countries at the security and political levels. Naturally, the US is unhappy with this rapprochement, as it undermines the effectiveness of its sanctions and isolates the West from the Middle East. But, it is cautious not to rush into a full normalization between Syria and Saudi Arabia, unless the Saudis are prepared to help rebuild more than a decade of war, in which Riyadh has been an active participant and provocateur. It is too early to judge until we see the results.
#2. SS: Bringing Syria back into the brotherhood of Arab nations seems like a bold move by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. How will other Arab nations react to this new policy? Will they follow the lead of the Crown Prince?
EJM: Saudi Arabia is not the first to develop relations with Syria. The United Arab Emirates opened its embassy and restored relations years ago. However, the Saudi move to welcome Syria back into the Arab Summit and League has significant implications for all those Arabs who have boycotted Syria and are still funding the jihadists, such as Qatar. Again, it remains to be seen how this rapprochement will be translated by the other Gulf states beyond taking pictures together at the next summit.
#3. SS: Saudi Arabia plans to invite both Iran and Turkey to the Arab League Summit. The recent restoration of diplomatic relations, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has paved the way for this invitation. How can Turkey participate in the new Syria policy?
EJM: Turkey is preoccupied with its presidential elections, and President Erdogan will want to capitalize on his meeting with President Assad. So far, the Syrian condition has been a commitment to a complete Turkish withdrawal from Syria. This is difficult for Turkey to achieve because it would mean that tens of thousands of jihadists and takfiris would turn against Ankara, and be left alone without a sponsor or cover. Moreover, the US will take a tough stance against Turkey because it hopes President Assad will not regain control of the entire territory. That is why Assad is holding firm for now despite Russian and Iranian pressure on Syria to persuade him to meet Erdogan. I don’t see what he could gain from meeting his Turkish counterpart when Turkey is almost a month away from elections.
#4. SS: What are some of the economic benefits to the Arab world by bringing Syria back to the summit table?
EJM: Syria needs some $300-500 billion to rebuild the country and develop its natural resources. If the US allows, the Gulf states have much to gain from participating in Syria’s reconstruction. Finally, the Gulf states are taking a positive step towards Syria, but this doesn’t mean the US has become an enemy. On the contrary, the consequences of the US-Russian war in Ukraine have led many states to adopt a balancing approach and expand their options. This is what the Arab states are doing: opening up to Iran and Syria but keeping the level of US anger under control.
#5. SS: What about the Arab nations who have entered into normalization pacts with Israel; will they accept the Syrian resistance position? What about Qatar: they have been against restoring ties to Syria. How will they react?
EJM: Israel is the biggest loser in the rapprochement between the Saudis, Iranians and Syrians. Syria and Saudi have been enemies for over ten years, and Israel has benefited from this narrative. Now that the situation is changing, Israel feels uncomfortable and more isolated, especially when its officials’ planned visits have been postponed to an unknown date. As the consequences of the war in Ukraine become more evident, the Gulf states will move closer to Syria and become involved in the reconstruction of the country. There is considerable potential for full normalization as we approach the US elections. As for Qatar, the Saudis must find a balance for reconciliation. Damascus will not close its doors to Doha, which should stop its financial support for the jihadists in north-western occupied Syria.
Steven Sahiounie is a two-time award-winning journalist