The Never Ending Story of The Near East Aleppo – Mossul – Syria – Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia-Syria relations
Saudi Arabia–Syria relations refer to diplomatic and economic relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria. Diplomatic ties between these two countries of the Middle East have long been strained by the major events in the region. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria deteriorated further following the Syrian Civil War and Saudi Arabia’s numerous calls for Bashar al-Assad to be removed from power. Saudi Arabia cut off relations with Syria after they decided to close its embassy in Damascus and expel the Syrian ambassador in 2012.
Factors affecting relations
Sonoko Sunayama, a Middle East expert, argues that although economic concerns and balance of power are important, concerns about identity and ideology play the most significant role in the two countries‘ relations. Ian Black of the Guardian, on the other hand, states that Saudi foreign policy in general mostly focuses on business involving financial incentives and low-profile initiatives, which continued towards Syria until King Abdullah’s high-profile condemnation of the Assad government in 2011.
Both countries share Arab nationalist and Islamic identities. However, a significant element of their identity and government, namely secular versus conservative pattern, is completely different in that Syria has a secular government and life-style, while Saudi Arabia a conservative regime and world view.
The relations between two countries have been turbulent since their establishment as modern states.
1940s through 1960s
A Syrian mission was opened in Saudi Arabia in 1941. King Abdulaziz reportedly advocated the independence of Syria and Lebanon from both the Hashemite dynasty and the French mandate. The King met Shukri Al Quwatli, the first president of independent Syria, on 17 February 1945 in Al Fayyum, Egypt. Both countries were the founding members of the Arab League which was established in 1945.
Saudi Arabia supported the coup in Syria by Adib Shishakli in December 1950. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and Syria were in rival camps in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of the policies of Egypt’s leader Gamal Nasser and of the Cold War. Syria advocated Nasser’s policies and was the major Arab ally of the USSR. However, Saudi Arabia was among the opponents of Nasser’s policies and was close to the United States. Following the Baath party’s rule in Syria in 1963, their diplomatic ties again became tense. A left-wing faction of the Baath Party, called the Neo-Baath, led by Salah Jadid took over the government on 23 February 1966, further damaging the relations. Because new Syrian government declared war against monarchist nations, including Saudi Arabia.
1970s and 1980s
At the end of November 1970, the neo-Baath leaders were toppled and removed, and Hafez Assad became the ruler of Syria. Diplomatic negotiations between two countries were opened and renewed. With the death of Nasser in 1972 the relations began to further improve.
Three months before the joint attacks of Egyptian and Syrian forces on Israeli forces in the Sinai and the Golan Heights Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Assad visited King Faisal in Riyadh in August 1973. In turn, King Faisal visited Damascus in 1974 and persuaded then US Secretary of StateHenry Kissinger to include Syria as a key participant in any Arab-Israeli negotiations. King Khalid, successor of King Faisal, stated in 1975 that Saudi Arabia supported the Syrian role in the Lebanese civil war. Hafez Assad participated in the Riyadh summit held in 1976.
Syria’s alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran during the Iran–Iraq War again led to strained relations at the beginning of the 1980s. Syrian president Hafez Assad paid a significant visit to Riyadh on 22 December 1981. When King Fahd became the ruler of Saudi Arabia in 1982 he developed a special bond with Assad and it continued throughout his reign. In October 1989, both countries actively advocated the Taif agreement that reestablished the Lebanon’s political system and ended civil war in Lebanon.
The relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria were positive in the 1990s. Following the invasion of Kuwait by then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in August 1990, Syria took part in the US-led international coalition that was established to defend Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait.
The assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an ally of Saudi Arabia, in Beirut on 14 February 2005 was detrimental to the relations. The Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 further damaged the relations since Syria overtly advocated Hezbollah. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria began to become strained in August 2008 when Saudi Arabian ambassador was called back to Riyadh and then, withdrawn in protest over Syrian forces‘ crackdown on anti-government demonstrators. In addition, King Abdullah boycotted the Arab League’s summit held in Damascus in 2008.
However, Saudi Arabia appointed its ambassador to Damascus, Abdullah Al Eifan, on 25 August 2009. Bashar Assad visited Riyadh in September 2009. In October, King Abdullah visited Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus that was regarded as a rapprochement between two countries. In addition, Syria appointed a new ambassador, Mehdi Dakhlallah, to Saudi Arabia the same month. Therefore, diplomatic ties were reestablished. By January 2010, Syrian President Assad visited Saudi Arabia for three times.
Syrian civil war
The Financial Times reported in May 2013 that Saudi Arabia was becoming a larger provider of arms to the various groups. Since the summer of 2013, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group to finance and arm the rebels. Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons, such as Yugoslav-made recoilless guns and the M79 Osa, an anti-tank weapon, from Croatia via shipments shuttled through Jordan. The weapons began reaching rebels in December 2012 which allowed rebels‘ small tactical gains against the Syrian army. This shipment was said to be to counter shipments of weapons from Iran to aid the Syrian government.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have received criticism for increasing their backing for Syrian rebels associated with the Army of Conquest, which includes the al-Nusra front, an al-Qaeda affiliated group.
M79 Osa anti-tank weapon purchased by Saudi Arabia from Croatia for use in the Syrian Civil War
In December 2012, a new wave of weapons from foreign supporters were transferred to rebel forces via the Jordanian border in the country’s south. The arms included M79 Osaanti-tank weapons and M-60 recoilless rifles purchased by Saudi Arabia from Croatia. Previously, most of the weapons were delivered via the Turkish border in the north. The goal for the change in routes was to strengthen moderate rebels and to support their push towards Damascus.
Bandar bin Sultan
In August 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan had been appointed to lead Saudi Arabia’s efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that the US Central Intelligence Agency considered this a sign of how serious Saudi Arabia was about this aim. Bandar was described as „jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime.“ After tensions with Qatar over supplying rebel groups, Saudi Arabia switched its efforts from Turkey to Jordan in 2012, using its financial leverage over Jordan to develop training facilities there, overseen by Bandar’s half-brother Salman bin Sultan. In late 2012 Saudi intelligence also began efforts to convince the US that the Assad government was using chemical weapons. The Saudi government also would be sending prisoners sentenced to death to fight in Syria.
Former head of MI6, Richard Dearlove revealed he was told Bandar’s genocidal intentions, claiming the Prince had told him „The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‚God help the Shia‘. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.“ Dearlove has expressed his view that „Saudi Arabia is involved in the Isis-led Sunni rebellion“.
November 2015 escalation
Following the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, Saudi Arabia heavily increased its support and supply of arms such as anti-tank weapons in order to assist rebels in countering major new government offensives backed by Russian air support.
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Syrian civil war that began in 2011 damaged the relations between two countries. Because Saudi Arabia have been allegedly sending weapons to the opposition forces, while Iran to the Assad forces. It was Saudi King Abdullah who was the first Arab leader to condemn the Assad government in August 2011 „due to its method to deal with the anti-government“ demonstrations.“
As a result of these events, Saudi Arabia withdrew its delegation from the Arab League’s peacekeeping mission in Syria on 22 January 2012 and closed its embassy in Damascus in February as well as expelled Syrian ambassador.
One of the early economic relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria was in 1950 when a trade agreement was signed and Saudi Arabia provided Syria with financial support. It followed other trade agreements, but all of them were cancelled by King Faisal on 3 May 1966 due to hostile attitude of the neo-Baath government in Syria towards Saudi Arabia. On 4 April 1972, the two countries signed another trade and economic agreement. It allowed free imports and exports of local products between two countries without customs fees for agricultural products, livestock and natural resources. Following the Syrian support for the coalition in the war against the invasion of Kuwait, Syria was provided with nearly $2.2-2.6 billion in aid by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In February 1991, a joint committee was formed by Saudi Arabia and Syria, and it fostered economic cooperation between the countries.
In 1997, Syrian exports to Saudi Arabia included mostly livestock, fruits, vegetables, textiles and furniture of which overall cost was over 602 million Riyals. Major items exported by Saudi Arabia to Syria were crude oil and its by products, plant oil and dates, and the 1997 cost of them was nearly 262 million Riyals. In addition, Saudi Arabia had private investments in Syria with a cost of US $700 million in the same year. The number of joint projects was around 50.
Syria and Saudi Arabia signed an accord on 20 February 2001 to set up a free trade area. In December 2001, the two countries and Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding concerning the construction of a railway link to be used by all three for commercial purposes. Later both countries joined the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA).
In parallel to tense diplomatic relations in 2008, both countries began to put taxes on each other’s products, but, taxes were ended in 2009. Unofficial figure for the 2007 annual Saudi investment in Syria was $750m and it increased to $1 billion in 2009. On 6 and 7 March 2010 Saudi-Syrian Business Forum and the 11th Session of the Syrian-Saudi Joint Committee were held in Damascus. Five cooperation agreements were signed during the events.
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