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After a three-year freeze-out by Riyadh, Damascus finds itself back in favor. Why now?
Before the Hariri assassination, Syria and Saudi Arabia had strong economic and political ties. After Syria’s humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, and President George W. Bush’s efforts to overturn the status quo in the region through sanctions (imposed on Syria in 2003) and force, the Syrians strengthened their ties with Iran.
As the rhetoric and tension increased between the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia and their Lebanese allies headed by Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son, on the one hand, and Syria and its Lebanese allies, led by Hezbollah, on the other, Lebanon suffered. An Israeli bombardment, clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, and numerous assassinations wracked Lebanon from 2005 to 2008.
Salem says that with engagement, Syria has returned to its pre-2005 role in the Levant as a “bridge, a cementer.”
“That’s a renewal of its role in the region,” he said. “If you can get Syria, Saudi, Lebanon, Iraq and the Gulf under a bit of an American umbrella, that’s quite significant, and that’s happening.”
But Salem says that doesn’t mean that Syria is going to get break its relationship with Iran anytime soon, or with Hezbollah or Hamas. Nor is the U.S. going to loosen or end sanctions.
“Breaking Syria away from Iran is not the point,” he said. “But alongside the Syrian and Iranian relationship you have recreated a very important set of new or renewed relationships in and around Syria which are very valuable to Syria and will definitely influence their decision making.”
Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst and the editor in chief of the Damascus-based Forward Magazine, says the Syrians will be willing to work with all sides in Lebanon “provided there are some international guarantees.”
“If they start using [Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri’s] cabinet to talk about disarmament or to spread very loud anti-Syrian rhetoric from Beirut, then the Syrians won’t accept it,” he said. “But as long as the Syrians are told, ‘we all want to work together to get out of this mess,’ then the Syrians are interested in cooperation, and a lot of that cooperation has to do with Saudi Arabia.”