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Syria and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, has been displeased with Bashar al-Assad because of his growing ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, and his support for Hizballah, the powerful Shiite militia in Lebanon. The kingdom is concerned by the shifting power dynamics between Shiites and Sunnis, accelerated by the transition in Iraq's political leadership from a Sunni minority to the Shiite majority. By siding with Persian Iran, many Saudis believe Syria has betrayed the Arab cause. Syria and Saudi Arabia have been at odds, over Lebanon in particular, since the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Hariri had acquired Saudi citizenship, and was close to the royal family.

Friction between the two states escalated markedly following the summer 2006 conflict in Lebanon, especially after Bashar publicly labeled unnamed Arab leaders "half-men." The tension ebbed briefly with Saudi King Abdullah's public embrace of Bashar at the Arab League summit in March 2007, though their private meeting failed to generate lasting coordination on Lebanon. Hamidi recalled Syrian government frustration over Saudi rebuff of three separate invitations proffered by the Syrian government to Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. In late May 2007, Muallem publicly demurred on the issue of improved bilateral coordination, noting that he still awaited "practical steps in this direction." By 2007 Syrian-Saudi relations were "awful", and the previously active Saudi ambassador in Damascus reportedly had stopped engaging the Syrian government.

Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara'a sparked a week of escalated rhetoric and widespread media speculation on a renewed Syrian-Saudi rift with his remarks on 14 August 2007 to Syrian media on Saudi Arabia's role as a regional leader. Shara'a described the Saudi government as "paralyzed" in its ability to lead on regional issues. He cited the collapse of the February 2007 Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas, asserting that it was brokered in Damascus but transferred to Riyadh, to accommodate the Saudi desire to announce the agreement and assume the lead on its fulfillment. Shara'a also criticized Riyadh's absence from the early August meeting in Damascus of the Iraq Border Security Working Group (BSWG), noting that Riyadh could have sent a "low-rank embassy employee" if it had reservations but instead deliberately chose to leave its seat vacant. Shara'a is known to stray "off message," and he appears less frequently at public events than favored regime speakers, such as Information Minister Mohsen Bilal, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and Expatriates Minister Buthayna Sha'aban.

Saudi Arabia responded sharply to Shara'a's comments. A 16 August 2007 statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed Saudi official rejecting the "lies and contradictions" of Shara'a's "repugnant" remarks and accusing Damascus of fomenting "chaos" in the region. The Saudis issued their riposte despite an unsuccessful attempt to defuse tensions by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. In a 15 August 2007 interview with Dubai-based satellite television station, Al-Arabiyah, Muallem asserted the strength of Syrian ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, noting recurrent state visits, including Syrian participation in the March 2007 Arab League summit in Riyadh. Official public exchanges on the issue ended on August 18, with a Syrian statement reported by the Syrian Arab News Agency expressing "regret" for the Saudi "distortion" of Shara'a's remarks.

The Saudi-owned, London-based daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, reported 25 August 2007 on security threats to the Saudi Ambassador in Lebanon that prompted his temporary recall to Riyadh. The report did not explicitly point a finger at Syria, but noted comments from Saudi officials that it is "easy to guess the scheming quarters" responsible for the threats. Subsequent reporting from Dubai-based al-Arabiyah television included quotes from Saudi officials positing the involvement of Syrian government proxies. Saudi pique over Shara'a's remarks also was evident in news coverage of Syrian opposition elements known to irritate the Syrian government. Saudi paper, Abha al-Watan, ran interviews criticizing Shara'a and the Syrian regime with former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, including extensive discussion by Bayanuni of the need for regime change in Damascus.

Lebanon remains the core issue of contention between the two states, the proximate cause of Shara'a's outburst appears to have been Saudi absence from the Syrian government-hosted Iraq security working group in early August 2007. The Saudi decision could have been attributed as much to distrust of multi-lateral dealings with the Iraqi government and their antipathy to Maliki as to anger at the Syrian government, as evidenced by the lack of Saudi participation in two prior Iraq working groups on energy and refugees. Most observers interpreted the Saudi move as an expression of displeasure with both Syria and Iraq. The Syrian government nevertheless took umbrage at the diplomatic slight, and bristled at being left to bear the brunt of accusations about the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq when Damascus perceives Saudi responsibility for exporting jihadists.

The Syrian government has expressed irritation with Riyadh's stance on Arab-Israeli issues. The Syrian government dissented during 30 July 2007 discussions among Arab League foreign ministers of a U.S. peace initiative. Though Syria's public comments highlighted their belief that Arab leaders should focus on healing the intra-Palestinian rift first, Damascus is also worried that it will be left out of any U.S.-sponsored gathering. The Syrian government was particularly incensed over Saudi King Faisal's subsequent comments welcoming an international conference. Syrian government concerns may have been alleviated somewhat by the 24 August 2007 interview of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Egyptian weekly, Al-Akhbar al-Yom, in which he asserted that all Arab parties must be included in any peace conference.

Criticism of Damascus also has been infused with allegations of the Syrian government's questionable commitment to Arab unity and its true allegiance to Iran. A 21 August 2007 article in Al-Sharq al-Awsat derided Syrian claims to be the "beating heart of pan-Arabism," instead cataloguing the various ways in which President Bashar al-Asad has become "subservient" to Iranian interests. More generally, the theme of Syrian-Saudi tension as a manifestation of a broader struggle between Iran and the United States has been posited by a range of observers. Andrew Tabler, editor of the English-language monthly, Syria Today, described the Syria-Saudi row to the Associated Press as a "war by proxy" between the United States and Iran, noting the potential for spillover into Lebanon -- where Syria and Saudi Arabia are already at odds -- and Iraq, where their support of Sunni interests should otherwise generate common ground.

After the 28 September 2008 bombing in Damascus, the Syrian government sent the Saudis a "very precise" list of Saudi jihadists on the loose that created great concern in Riyadh. Contacts between the two governments ensued, with SARG General Intelligence Directorate (GID) chief Ali Mamluk visiting Riyadh. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Muqrin's 16 February 2009 visit to Damascus followed up on those initial contacts. The Saudis had wanted to restrict renewed contacts with the Syrians to the counter-terrorism sphere. Syria, however, had rejected that restriction and insisted that the counter-terrorism cooperation could only proceed in the context of improved political relations.

Initiated by joint concern over Saudi jihadists on the loose, by early 2009 renewed contacts between the two have been expanded from the counter-terrorism domain to a larger political context on the insistence of the Syrians. The Saudis were reportedly amenable in part in order to stem Syria's facilitation of Turkish and Iranian "interference" in intra-Arab affairs. The Saudis were unhappy with the cleavage in the Arab League that was providing opportunities for Turkey and Iran to interfere in Arab affairs; they wanted to bring Syria (which so far had actively facilitated Turkish and Iranian participation) back into the fold.

President Bashar al-Asad's surprise 23 September 2009 trip to attend the opening of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) resulted from heavy lobbying by Turkey and Qatar, according to Embassy contacts. Asad and King Abdullah reportedly held a two-hour tour d'horizon discussion of regional issues, including but not limited to Lebanon. According to media reports, King Abdullah agreed to visit Damascus in the coming days.

There had been no high-level, official Saudi visits to Damascus since late 2005. October 2009 marked aturning point in relations, with a visit by King Abdullah to Damascus. Among other things, his visit is believed to have helped break the logjam in the formation of the Lebanese government. Relations since continued to thaw, as evidencedby Syrian President Assads reciprocal visit to Riyadh in January 2010. Many observers perceived the Kings overture to Damascus as motivated in part by a desire to displace Iranian influence in Damascus.

After more than a year of unrest, the regime and opposition in Syria were in a stalemate. Regional pressure on the regime increased as the Arab League (AL) suspended Syrias membership in mid-November 2011 and deployed monitors to Syria in late December 2011 after earlier calls to the regime to end violence, withdraw forces from cities, release detainees, permit access to AL monitors, and begin dialogue with the opposition.

The AL, in late January 2012, publicaly called for Asad to transfer power to a deputy and accelerate legislative elections. The Arab Leagues proposal that Bashar al-Asad step down and hand power to Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa heading a joint interim government was immediately rejected by the Syrian regime, and most countries participating in the Arab League monitoring effort consequently withdrew from a planned 1-month extension. On 02 February 2012, following an AL request for U.N. support for their proposal, the UN Security Council convened to discuss a potential resolution.

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