Syria, Saudi Arabia to reopen missions, restoring ties severed by war

Move seemingly cementing Assad’s comeback comes days after Arab League votes to readmit country long isolated by regional rivals that backed rebel groups in civil war

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, welcomes Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan, left, before their meeting in Damascus, Syria, April 18, 2023. (SANA via AP)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, welcomes Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan, left, before their meeting in Damascus, Syria, April 18, 2023. (SANA via AP)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Syria’s President Bashar Assad cemented his return to the Arab fold Tuesday when leading Sunni power Saudi Arabia, which long backed rebel groups opposed to the regime, said its diplomats would resume work in the country.

The restoration of diplomatic ties, later confirmed by Damascus, came more than a decade after Riyadh withdrew its representatives during Syria’s civil war, and two days after the Arab League bloc ended Syria’s years-long suspension.

The kingdom “has decided to resume the work of its diplomatic mission in Syria,” Riyadh’s foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, saying it would seek to “develop joint Arab action”.

Syria’s SANA news agency also said “the Syrian Arab Republic has decided to resume the work of its diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia,” quoting a foreign ministry source.

Saudi Arabia will host the pan-Arab bloc’s next summit on May 19.

Assad had been politically isolated in the region since Syria’s war began, but a flurry of diplomatic activity has been underway in recent weeks after a decision by Saudi Arabia and Iran, a close ally of Damascus, to resume ties shifted the region’s political landscape.

Three weeks ago Assad met in Damascus with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the first such visit since the war broke out in 2011.

A view of the closed Saudi Embassy in Damascus on April 13, 2023.(LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

At that time, Assad and Prince Faisal discussed steps to “achieve a comprehensive political settlement that… contributes to Syria’s return to the Arab fold,” the Saudi foreign ministry said.

Saudi Arabia severed ties with Assad’s government in 2012 and Riyadh had long openly championed Assad’s ouster, backing Syrian rebels in earlier stages of the war.

Assad hopes normalization with wealthy Gulf states can bring economic relief and money for reconstruction, as broader international funding remains elusive without a United Nations-backed political settlement to the conflict.

Syria’s empty seat is pictured during an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo on May 7, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

On Sunday the Arab League welcomed back Syria’s government.

The body had suspended Damascus in November 2011 over its crackdown on peaceful protests, which had begun earlier that year and spiralled into a war that drew in foreign powers, has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and battered the country’s infrastructure and industry.

While the front lines have mostly quieted, large parts of the country’s north remain outside government control, and no political solution has yet been reached to the conflict.

Shelling aftermath is seen in Maram camp in Idlib province, Syria, Nov. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)

Arab League foreign ministers on Sunday emphasized their “keenness to launch a leading Arab role in efforts to resolve” the Syria crisis.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, head of the 22-member Arab League, said the decision “brings the Arab side into communication with the Syrian government for the first time in years.”

Syria’s return to the bloc is “the beginning… not the end of the issue,” he added, noting it was up to individual countries to decide whether to resume ties with Damascus.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition alliance, said Sunday’s decision meant “abandoning” Syrians and leaving them “without official Arab support”.

The United States and Britain said they still opposed relations with Assad but would work with Arab states that are re-establishing relations.

In this photo released by the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaks with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, March 18, 2022. Assad was in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, his office said, marking his first visit to an Arab country since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011. (Syrian Presidency Facebook page via AP)

“And our position is clear: We are not going to be in the business of normalizing relations with Assad and with that regime,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington.

But Blinken said the United States shared the goals of Arab partners in Syria, including on providing humanitarian assistance and combatting the Islamic State extremist group.

“So I think the Arab perspective, as articulated through the Arab League, is they believe that they can pursue these objectives through more direct engagement,” Blinken said.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, speaking alongside Blinken, said London was “very uncomfortable” with the Arab League decision.

“We cannot just wish away the actions of the Assad regime over the last few years; the brutality against Syrian people cannot just be ignored. And the UK certainly won’t brush that under the carpet,” Cleverly said.

“But we do recognize that there is a huge amount of pressure on countries in the region,” he said.

The United States maintains hundreds of soldiers in Syria as part of a coalition against the Islamic State group. Turkish and Iranian-linked forces are also in the country.

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