The end of the Gulf crisis has brought with it a window for Saudi Arabia to reassert itself in the Syrian war.
With the signing of the Al-Ula agreement, the crisis in the Gulf officially ended. The blockade on Qatar was lifted and the opportunity for new political investment and re-alignment opened.
What was perceived by most as a relief and an easing of tensions in the oil-rich region, it was Syrians who were among those that cheered the loudest. The Syrian opposition openly articulated their hope for a renewal of Saudi support – but will that Saudi support materialise?
The Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces welcomed the Al-Ula agreement by stating that “Syria is awaiting a more active Arab role that will contribute to putting an end to the nearly 10-year suffering of the Syrian people; help the Syrian people achieve their aspirations for freedom and independence; getting rid of the murderous Assad regime and Iranian sectarian militias; and putting an end the Iranian subversive project in Syria and the region.”
By avoiding any direct mention of democracy and elections to avoid irritating the Arab monarchies, the general hope is that with the end of the internal crisis, the Gulf States will re-focus on Iran and its militias in the region. The Syrian opposition sees itself at the forefront in the battle against Iranian expansionism and Iranian sectarianism, and it expects a renewal of Saudi support. However, the past ten years have consistently shown that that the hopes of the Syrian people went unfulfilled.
For Saudi Arabia, the re-positioning in foreign policy is mainly driven by its expectations from the new Biden administration. The view in the Kingdom is that Biden's easing of pressure on Iran will force it to re-calculate its position and alliances. Based on the Saudi threat perception of Iran, the kingdom may re-invest in the Syrian opposition as a natural opposition to Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.
The crimes committed by Iran and its sectarian militias in Syria as well as its unlimited support to the dictator Bashar al Assad has been a cause of major trauma for so many Syrians. It is fair to say that Syrians are Iran's fiercest opponents, even more so than the Israelis. Syrians emphatically cheered the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps General Qasem Soleimani.
Shaping the future of Syria may prove highly valuable for Saudi Arabia. By being a player in the conflict, the kingdom can articulate its own interests, its threat perception, and influence policy-making in the Levant.
In addition to confronting Iran in the region without being dependent on the US, Saudi Arabia can also re-assert dominance in the Arab world. The Syrian opposition has become dispersed across the globe, yet they remainconnected. Direct political and logistic support by Saudi Arabia can enable the country to once again emerge in the spotlight of regional affairs.
After the kingdom surrendered influence in recent years, it can rapidly recover. Moreover, the just cause of the Syrian people may also help Saudi Arabia to locate itself in an ethically acceptable or even favourable position. If the kingdom combines this with a new approach in Yemen by valuing civilian lives and respecting the laws of war, popular opinion could shift – something the kingdom desperately craves.
Saudi Arabia does not lack potential local partners and its former partners are still present. From military factions like Jaysh al-Islam to political figures within the Syrian opposition, Saudi Arabia has friends in Syria.
However, three obstacles still remain.
The first are the limits of Saudi power and means. A weakened Saudi economy, chronic internal problems coupled with a less-friendly Biden administration might tie the Kingdom's hands. The disaster in Yemen, limits to Saudi arms purchases and the possibility of US sanctions over human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia can force the kingdom to restrain from any new engagement.
Secondly, the Saudis significantly reduced their role in Syria way before the blockade on Qatar. For the ruling family, the resolution of the Qatar crisis may not be linked or result in a change in their approach towards Syria.
Lastly, the Syrian opposition is mainly backed and protected by Turkey. Turkey does not protect the areas of the Syrian Interim Government with its military on the ground, but also is the sole guarantor of the Syrian opposition in the Astana process and the constitutional committee.
For the Saudi kingdom to re-invest in the Syrian opposition it needs to have the necessary capacity, the necessary will and has to restore relations with Turkey first. Turkey's prominence provides Saudi Arabia with an exceptional opportunity as well. Instead of relying on the US, the Kingdom can directly access Syria and the Syrian people and will not be alone. Instead of building from scratch, or riding America's coattails, Saudi Arabia can cooperate with Turkey and coordinate its political goals.
As Turkey and Saudi Arabia seem to have begun a path of restoring relations, only capacity and political will remain in front of the Saudi kingdom's support for the Syrian opposition.
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