Thursday, 18th July 2019

Saudi interest in Syria shifts towards the Kurdish east

Omani state minister for foreign affairs Yusuf Bin Alawi Bin Abdullah’s 7 July visit to Damascus was the most high-level public visit to Syria by an official from a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) member state for at least four years. It affirmed Muscat’s continued interest in being a regional interlocutor, as Bin Alawi met his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem and President Bashar Al-Assad. It repaid Muallem’s late 2018 visit to Oman, when the Syrian foreign minister praised Muscat’s “supportive positions towards Syria”.

Oman’s diplomatic foray may create space for others to engage more publicly with the Assad regime. The UAE has already been trying to rebuild commercial ties (GSN 1,077/1), but it is Saudi Arabia that has proved the more assertive – not by engaging with the Assad regime, but instead in developing its influence in Syria’s east.

Saudi minister for Gulf affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan in mid-June visited eastern Syria – in his his second visit to the Kurdish-dominated area in the past two years. In October 2017, Al-Sabhan had visited the former Islamic State (IS or Daesh) capital of Raqqa, to discuss reconstruction working in conjunction with United States special envoy to the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk. That was followed by a Saudi offer of $100m for projects in territories now under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Al-Sabhan, who is close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, also led a delegation in June to meet US officials and members of the Syrian Democratic Council in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Other reports indicated he also met US deputy special envoy for the anti-IS coalition William Roebuck, who was visiting the town of Ain Issa near the Syrian border, as well as US deputy secretary of state Joel Rayburn.

Riyadh’s robust support for the SDF has helped roll back Daesh in eastern Syria. However, the SDF has attracted criticism from Arab tribes because of deteriorating security conditions, price rises and residual ethnic distrust of Kurds. Al-Sabhan’s brief has been to meet Arab tribal representatives and convince them to co-operate with the SDF. Meetings with Deir Ezzour tribes – many of whom fought against Daesh – also took place at the Al-Umar air base in Syria’s east. Al-Sabhan urged them to continue to support the SDF in order to maintain stability. In return, the Saudis would help the Arab tribes obtain stronger political representation in the eastern statelet.

However, the Saudi delegation has faced a challenge in convincing the tribes of the need for co-operation. Al-Mashahada tribal leader Sheikh Haider Al-Hammadi was quoted by the Middle East Monitor website as stating that “all the Syrian tribes, except for the Al-Sharatham, refuse to visit Al-Sabhan and assist them in the blatant interference in our national affairs”. Al-Hammadi also accused Al-Sabhan of attempting to use funds and the distribution of money to influence their decisions; he said this “will not change the reality that [Al-Assad] has the loyalty of most Arab tribes”.

Other Syrian opposition figures have criticised Al-Sabhan’s visit. Free Syrian Army leader Mustafa Sijfir tweeted his criticism of Riyadh’s “support for separatist terrorist groups”. This was an “insult to the blood of the martyrs and to the… families that have been forcibly displaced,” he said.

The Assad regime nonetheless appears rattled by Saudi engagement with tribes east of the Euphrates; it has sought to counter it by convening its own meetings with local leaders. In the aftermath of Al-Sabhan’s visit to Deir Ezzour, the head of Assad’s military security branch in the north-east city of Hasakah, Mohammed Al-Janduli, reportedly called on Arab tribal chiefs to attend a 20 June conference in Aleppo. Damascus is also wary of longer-standing links between Saudi Arabia and eastern-based Syrian opposition figures such as Ahmad Jaraa, an Arab Syrian from Hasakah who once headed the Saudi-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. He is also a member of the Shammar tribe, which has a presence in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi diplomats are unlikely to retreat from their influence-building mission in Syria’s east. They believe they can mediate between tribal forces and the SDF, and develop greater regional autonomy from Damascus. This has prompted speculation that Riyadh, with US and Kurdish support, might back plans that could facilitate the east’s eventual secession. The region already has an operational name – the Self-Administration Authority of North and East Syria. It operates a border control system distinct from the Syrian government, and – continuing the template of the short-lived IS caliphate – issues its own car licence plates. Credible reports suggest work is also under way on creating travel documents.

Having failed to dislodge Assad, Saudi policy has clearly shifted eastwards, away from Damascus. In bolstering the SDF, it is challenging Syrian government authority while also posing a threat to the interests of Turkey. In the longer term this may prove far more significant than Oman and the UAE engaging with the Assad regime. Needless to say, Ankara is watching developments closely, with the Saudi intervention in eastern Syria adding to Turkey’s charge sheet against the kingdom – an increasingly heavy load that will be difficult to lighten in a tense environment.

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