After Iran détente, Saudi Arabia opens diplomatic talks with Syria

Riyadh announces sides discussing resumption of consular services, 12 years after ties were cut at start of Syrian civil war

In this photo released by the official Syrian state news agency SANA, Syrian soldiers unload humanitarian aid sent from Saudi Arabia following a devastating earthquake, at the airport in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (SANA via AP)
In this photo released by the official Syrian state news agency SANA, Syrian soldiers unload humanitarian aid sent from Saudi Arabia following a devastating earthquake, at the airport in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (SANA via AP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Saudi Arabia is in talks with Syria to reopen its embassy in the war-torn nation for the first time in a decade, state television in the kingdom reported late Thursday, the latest diplomatic reshuffling in the region.

The announcement on state TV comes after Chinese-mediated talks in Beijing saw Saudi Arabia and Iran agree to reopen embassies in each others’ nations after years of tensions. Syrian President Bashar Assad has maintained his grip on power in the Mediterranean nation rocked by the 2011 Arab Spring only with the help of Iran and Russia, which made a historic call earlier in the day to Oman.

Saudi Arabian state television aired a report late Thursday, quoting an anonymous official in the country’s Foreign Ministry, acknowledging the talks between the kingdom and Damascus.

“A source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed to Al-Ekhbariyah that ongoing discussions have begun with the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, commenting on what was circulated by some international media,” an anchor said on air. “Discussions are underway between officials in the kingdom and their counterparts in Syria about resuming the provision of consular services.”

Reuters first reported on the talks Thursday, spurring the Saudi state TV announcement. The Wall Street Journal, quoting anonymous Saudi and Syrian officials, later attributed the talks to reopen the countries’ embassies to Russian mediation.

Syrian state media did not immediately acknowledge the talks. Officials in both Saudi Arabia and Syria did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press early Friday.

Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, which the Kremlin called the “the first high-level bilateral contact since the establishment of diplomatic relations” between the nations. Muscat established ties with the Soviet Union in 1985.

Oman long has been an interlocutor between the West and Iran. Recent months have seen talks in Oman over Yemen’s long-running war, in which Saudi Arabia backs the country’s exiled government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that hold its capital, Sanaa.

The kingdom backed the Syrian opposition against Assad during Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war that began in 2011. However, in recent years, a regional rapprochement has been brewing. Last month’s devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey sparked international sympathy and speeded up the process, with Saudi and other Arab countries shipping aid to Damascus.

Assad visited Oman in late February. He traveled Sunday to the United Arab Emirates, another nation that earlier had backed fighters trying to topple his government.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister has acknowledged publicly that there is a growing consensus among Arab countries that dialogue with Damascus is necessary. Saudi Arabia is hosting the next Arab League summit in May, where most states hope to restore Syria’s membership after it was suspended in 2011, the league’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, has said.

China’s and Russia’s interest in the Middle East long has been a concern for US officials, which view the the region as crucial to global energy prices even as America pumps more crude oil than ever before and doesn’t rely on Saudi oil as much as it once did. Saudi Arabia has grown closer to Russia as Moscow has rallied allies to back production cuts by OPEC to boost global oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia also have been at a low since President Joe Biden took office calling the kingdom a “pariah” over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The State Department and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In Israel, the Saudi-Iranian détente was seen as setting back efforts to forge closer ties with Riyadh, which have been largely underpinned by shared worries regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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