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Syria-Saudi ties improve

After a three-year freeze-out by Riyadh, Damascus finds itself back in favor. Why now?

Tourists stroll in Old Damascus in Syria. Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia are showing signs of improvement. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Seems that after three years of cold-shoulder treatment from regional heavyweight  Saudi Arabia, the air in Damascus just got a whole lot warmer.

Just over a year ago, relations between the Saudis and Syria were at an all-time low.

Riyadh refused to send a high-level envoy to the Arab League meeting in Damascus, an even bigger snub than Saudi Arabia’s failure to fill their Damascus ambassador position after the previous one lapsed in February 2008.

The falling out between the two countries dates back to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was a dual Lebanese and Saudi citizen, in 2005. Syria was accused of the murder and, under intense regional and international pressure, withdrew its troops after occupying and largely running Lebanon since the end of the country’s civil war in 1991. Damascus denies it had anything to do with Hariri’s murder.

With the assassination, the U.S., France and Saudi Arabia implemented a policy of diplomatic isolation. The U.S. recalled its ambassador, accusing Syria of not only assassinating Hariri but of funding and helping insurgents in Iraq fight U.S. troops there. U.S. officials also derided Syria for helping Iran arm Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But analysts say the Syrian and Saudi reconciliation is just the latest step in a regional thawing that began the day U.S. President Barak Obama was inaugurated. The administration’s decision to change policy in favor of carrots over sticks has eased tensions in the region.

“The Saudi policy of isolating Syria that went on for many years was dependent on the U.S. doing the same,” Paul Salem, director of Carnegie’s Middle East Center, said. “Once it became clear that Obama would not pursue a policy of isolation, the Saudis could not isolate Syria by themselves.”

The U.S. announced in late June that it would send an ambassador to Damascus.

On June 28, a Saudi prince, accompanied by the Saudi information minister — a former ambassador to Beirut — visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It followed two other meetings between high ranking Syrian and Saudi officials at summits in Kuwait and Doha in January and March of this year, after Israel's bombardment of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

On July 2, the Saudi media reported the kingdom would name an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in more than a year.

"We are reminding [the Syrians] of the natural links that we share," a Saudi royal adviser told the Wall Street Journal. "We have presented a way for them to get out of the hole that they have dug for themselves,” alluding to Saudi Arabia’s with alliance with Iran."