Potential thaws

Saudi Arabia in talks with Iran, Turkey and Syria

Martin Chulov reporting for the Guardian:

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief has travelled to Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart in the first known meeting of its kind since the outbreak of the Syrian war a decade ago.

The meeting in the Syrian capital on Monday is being seen as a precursor to an imminent detente between two regional foes, who have been at odds throughout much of the conflict.

The Saudi government said reports about the meeting are inaccurate, but an official told the newspaper that the normalisation of relations could begin shortly after the end of Ramadan in a couple of weeks. “It’s been planned for a while, but nothing has moved,” the official said. “Events have shifted regionally and that provided the opening.”

This development has been widely expected after the kingdom’s allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced reopening their embassies in Damascus at the end of 2018.

Other Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, have also been stepping up their outreach to Syria, laying the ground for allowing the war-torn country to re-enter the Arab League which suspended its membership from the organization in November 2011 in response to the Assad’s regime brutal crackdown on rebels who revolted against his rule.

David Schenker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and a current senior fellow at the Washington Institute, says such moves were opposed by senior officials at the Trump administration but Arab countries pushed ahead with them anyway. The decision to re-engage Assad was “spurred by economic exigencies, fatigue with the war, regional rivalries, and a growing sense that the Assad regime had prevailed,” he added.

Khalid al-Humaidan, head of the kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate, led the Saudi delegation. He was also in charge of the delegation that met with Iranian officials in Baghdad in recent weeks as the two regional rivals sought to reduce tension. Iraqi President Barham Salih said Baghdad has already hosted more than one round of talks. The first set of talks were mainly used to test the waters for future rapprochement with more rounds planned, an Iraqi official told Bloomberg.

American Secretary of State Antony Blinken would not directly confirm the reports of Saudi-Iranian talks, but he told the Financial Times on Tuesday that, “if they’re talking, I think that’s generally a good thing.”

“Talking is usually better than the alternative. Does it lead to results? That’s another question. But talking, trying to take down tensions, trying to see if there’s a modus vivendi, trying to get countries to take actions on things they’re doing that you don’t like—that’s good, that’s positive,” he said.

Blinken’s comments came one week after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is seeking a “good relationship” with Iran, using a markedly different tone than the one he used before when talking about the kingdom’s regional rival.

“Our problem is with Iran’s negative behaviour, including its nuclear programme, support for illegal militias in some countries in the region, and ballistic missile programme”, the prince said in an interview last week. “We’re working today with our partners in the region to find solutions to these problems and we hope to overcome them and have a good and positive relationship with them”.

A senior Saudi official has confirmed the talks with Iran but said it was too early to judge the outcome. “We hope they prove successful, but it is too early, and premature, to reach any definitive conclusions,” Rayed Krimly, head of policy planning at the foreign ministry, told Reuters. “Our evaluation will be based on verifiable deeds, and not proclamations.”

The new Saudi push for engagement does not appear limited to Syria and Iran, with many signals pointing to a potential easing of tensions between the kingdom and Turkey too.

King Salman received a telephone call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday to discuss bilateral ties. This was the second conversation between the two leaders in less than a month as Turkey seeks to improve ties with Gulf states and Egypt. One day after the call, the Turkish ambassador to Saudi Arabia met with the kingdom’s deputy foreign minister in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia placed an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods last year. The government denied imposing the ban which local businessman described as a “popular campaign” and said it was in response to what they called hostility from Ankara towards the kingdom’s leadership. The value of trade between the two countries fell by 98% as a result. Eight Turkish schools operating in Saudi Arabia were also told they would have to shut down by the end of 2021.

Saudi pundits have not toned down their criticism of Turkey in recent weeks, saying recent moves to rebuild ties with Arab neighbours should not be seen as a sign of Erdoğan scaling back his hegemonic ambitions but rather a tactical manoeuvre under the pressure of a painful economic crisis.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a former editor of Asharq al-Awsatwrote late March:

The most important aspect for us, in fact, is not that he suspended the [Muslim] Brotherhood and Turkish media loyal to them, and will expel a few hundreds of them later, and some of them will be extradited, and we will see a return of relations. What is more important is that we want to know: are we facing a new Erdoğan? Is it a real change in policy?

We should not be too happy, as it is likely that he would continue as we have known him in the past ten years, and will resume the political battles, perhaps using different paths. The hope is that Erdoğan’s repentance will be sincere and he will abandon his regional ambitions, stop the wars and give an opportunity for the torn and impoverished region to live in peace and devote itself to development.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Okaz columnist Mohammed al-Saaed:

Today, Erdoğan is seeking to use religious sympathy to restore relations with Saudi Arabia, deploying the terms of Islamic fraternity, and talking about haram and halal, forgetting that he used to make “foolish” statements against Riyadh and directed his political staff, explicitly or implicitly, to test Saudi patience and cunning.

He says that it is haram for Riyadh to hold military manoeuvres and exercises with Greece, noting that Turkey and Greece are members of NATO, and despite the fact that Greece itself did not protest when Saudi Arabia carried out similar manoeuvres with the Turks before.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next week for the first time since journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

The Saudis remain sceptical about Turkish intentions.

“I don’t trust Turkey or Iran, two sides of the same coin,” Adhwan al-Ahmari, editor of Saudi-owned Independent Arabiasaid on Twitter. “Erdoğan is knocking doors now but will return to his old self in four years after Joe Biden leaves. He is seeking temporary alliances to protect him from Western pressure and stimulate his economy…”