Al-Assad's presence at the Arab Summit and absence at Raisi's funeral

Although Raisi's death will not disrupt the strategic relationship between Iran and Syria, it will likely accelerate Damascus's pivot toward the Arab world

Al-Assad's presence at the Arab Summit and absence at Raisi's funeral

Although the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will not disrupt the strategic relationship between Iran and Syria, it will likely accelerate Damascus's pivot toward the Arab world and away from Tehran.

Two recent developments give credence to this view. First, over the weekend, Saudi Arabia appointed its first envoy to Syria in over a decade. It will also resume flights, open its gates to Muslim pilgrims, and work to enhance economic and trade relations. The second sign was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's participation in the Arab summit in Bahrain earlier this month.

After a decade-long suspension due to his brutal crackdown on opposition during Syria's civil war, al-Assad first appeared at the Arab summit in Jeddah a year ago. During his speech, he called for severing political ties with Israel. However, this time, al-Assad was notably quiet. The official explanation given was "time constraints". However, Syrian opposition figures say he wasn't given a platform because Arab leaders are not satisfied with the normalisation process a year after its initiation.

Political message

However, given the ongoing Syrian-Saudi rapprochement, there is reason to believe al-Assad's silence is meant to send a political message. This belief is further underscored by al-Assad's absence from Raisi's funeral—the president of a country who has supported him over the decades. Some reasons given for his absence were his wife Asma's illness and Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad's eye surgery in Moscow. Meanwhile, a pre-planned visit to Tehran, set to take place later this month, is still expected to take place.

Al-Assad's presence in Manama and absence in Tehran align with Syria's careful balancing act between the "Arab embrace" and the "Iranian alliance." To better understand this tightrope walk, it's important to review some key developments.

First, it's important to acknowledge that relations between Damascus and Tehran are indeed strained. Israel continues to target Iranian leaders in Syria without any reaction from Damascus, and some suggest Syrian officials welcome the pressure on Iran.

Al-Assad's silence in Manama and over Israeli strikes on Syrian territory speaks volumes.

Additionally, the Syrian government has verbal and written instructions to reduce dealings with Iranian institutions, and the level of mutual visits between the two sides has significantly subsided in recent months. In fact, Raisi's planned visit to Damascus was postponed several times earlier this year.

Conversely, Syria's relations and interactions with Arab states are thriving despite underlying tensions, particularly between Damascus and Amman. In fact, an Arab ministerial meeting with Syria, supposed to take place in Baghdad on 8 May, was cancelled at Jordan's request.

Fresh opportunity

However, the recent meeting between Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi in Manama presents a fresh opportunity for both countries to implement their respective commitments outlined in the "roadmap".  Saudi Arabia's appointment of an ambassador also boosts reconciliation efforts aimed at addressing outstanding issues.

And in Washington, yet another significant development has unfolded. In what seems to be a carrot-and-stick approach, the White House has asked Congress to retract a proposed bill opposing Arab normalisation with al-Assad. Meanwhile, the US legislative body is expected to renew sanctions on the Syrian regime via the Caesar Act at the end of the year. Biden also signed another bill targeting the Captagon trade into law to keep up the pressure.

Read more: Biden gets another chance to dismantle Syria's drug trade

For its part, Europe's stance on Damascus is increasingly divided. While France, Germany, and the UK maintain a stringent approach, and trials against Syrian officials are being conducted in various capitals, other nations such as Italy, Cyprus, and Greece have progressed towards diplomatic normalisation with Damascus. Notably, a senior Czech official visited Damascus in late April, marking the first such visit in a decade. Meanwhile, European envoys have made discreet visits to Damascus in recent years.

These developments are all part of a synchronised strategy in a region undergoing normalisation drives on multiple fronts. To this end, the US and several European countries have opened the lines of communication with Damascus, while Arab states are pursuing a strategy in line with their regional interests.

In summary, by participating in the Arab Summit and not showing up for Raisi's funeral, Syria carefully navigates between the "Arab embrace" and the "Iranian alliance". Its silence in Manama and over Israeli strikes on Syrian territory speaks volumes.

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