The Saudi intelligence chief traveled to Damascus to meet his Syrian counterpart in the first known meeting of its kind since the outbreak of the Syrian war ten years ago.
Monday’s meeting in the Syrian capital is seen as a precursor to an imminent detente between two regional enemies, who have been at odds for much of the conflict.
Ties between the two countries were severed during the crackdown on the 2011 popular uprising against the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. But officials in Riyadh have said that normalization of relations could begin shortly after the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival next week which will mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“It’s been planned for a while, but nothing has changed,” said a Saudi official who asked not to be identified. “Events have changed regionally and this has provided openness.”
Such a move would be a significant boost for Assad, who clung to power with the support of Russian and Iranian allies as Syria collapsed around him. It would also be a watershed moment in regional diplomacy, nominally allying Riyadh with Tehran in one of the region’s most bitterly contested corners, where the two countries clashed using proxy forces.
The Saudi delegation was headed by General Khalid Humaidan, head of the country’s intelligence directorate. He was received by Syrian General Ali Mamlouk, the architect of the push to crush the early years of the anti-Assad revolution and the key interlocutor of Russian forces, who took a significant part in the conflict from September 2015. .
Two years earlier, Riyadh had played a central role in a plan to oust Assad by arming anti-Assad forces near Damascus and encouraging defections to neighboring Jordan, from where Saudi leaders expected Barack Obama launches a push by American proxies to take the Syrian capital. .
Such a plan never materialized, and when the US president chose not to allow airstrikes after the sarin attack on areas outside Damascus in 2013, Riyadh shifted its involvement in the conflict from use of proxy groups to supply guided missiles to opposition approved. groups that decimated Assad’s armored corps in the northwest of the country.
In August 2015, the missile program had led to the near collapse of key elements of the Syrian army, leading Iranian General Qassem Suleimani to travel to Moscow to seek the intervention of Vladimir Putin – an event that changed the during the war and drove regularly to Riyadh. opt out.
Riyadh has since remained in the background to the conflict, as its two regional allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have struggled to consolidate their ties. Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus last year.
Saudi officials see Assad as one of the main supporters of Iran-led Hezbollah, a major enemy in the region.
At the end of March, Iranian officials sent a message to Saudi leaders through an Iraqi envoy, suggesting that their country wanted to end friction with the kingdom, starting with Yemen, where a war initiated by Riyadh against the Arabs. Houthi rebels had driven him to the bottom. its eastern border for five years. The de-escalation of tensions in Iraq and Syria had also been mentioned during talks between the two parties.