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US discouraging Gulf states from restoring ties with Syria

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference in the desert kingdom's capital Riyadh on 15 November 2018. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images]
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference in the desert kingdom's capital Riyadh on 15 November 2018. [Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images]

The US is pressing Gulf states to hold off restoring ties with Syria, a move they’ve taken to counter the influence of regional rival Iran, five senior sources have told Reuters.

Several Arab states have sped up reconciliation efforts with the Syrian regime in recent months, as the government seems to emerge as the victor of the eight-year conflict. However, Washington, backed by Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, does not want Syria welcomed back into the international community until a political process to end the war has been agreed upon.

“The Saudis are quite helpful in pressing the others. Qatar also is doing the right thing,” said a US official, when asked about the diplomatic pressure.

Earlier this month, Saudi Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir reiterated that the Kingdom was consulting with other countries as to the implementation of UN resolution 2254, which calls for a political settlement in Syria.

“We look forward to a result that preserves Syria’s independence and unity and leads to the removal of its foreign forces,” Al-Jubeir said, seeming to refer to the presence of the Russian and Iranian forces in the country.

Just two weeks earlier, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani also ruled out a normalisation of ties between the Syrian government and Qatar, stating that the emirate saw no reason to reopen its embassy in Damascus. Speaking to reporters at a press conference, Al Thani slammed the suggestion that Qatar would mend relations with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whom he affirmed was “involved in war crimes”.

The official said that the United States was pleased that “some Gulf states are putting the brakes on”.

READ: Bashar Al-Assad calls on Syrian refugees to return to their own country

Riyadh has also denied reports that it plans to re-open its embassy in Damascus; in December, the UAE reopened its embassy, marking a significant diplomatic boost for the regime, with Bahrain subsequently confirming that its consulate and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Manama were also operational.

The UAE reportedly sees Al-Assad as the “only option”, according to one Gulf source, and believes that stemming Iranian influence in Syria could help prevent the kind of hold it now has in Iraq.

There have also been calls for Syria to return to the Arab League, with Algeria and Jordan joining Iraq and Lebanon in inviting President Al-Assad to attend the next summit scheduled to take place next month, eight years after Syria was suspended. The meeting, set to take place in Tunisia, would see the Assad government officially welcomed back into the fold.

However, news of US pressure suggests that Al-Assad is still a long way from being accepted, despite his forces having recaptured most of Syria through victories over Sunni opposition groups, thanks largely to help from Iran and Russia.

The US also reiterated its position publicly this week, with senior military officials stating on Sunday, that Washington would have to sever its military assistance to its partners on the ground, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) currently battling Daesh, if the fighters partner with the Assad regime or Russia.

The lack of support from Washington and regional heavyweight Riyadh to end Syria’s isolation is likely to make it harder for the devastated country to attract the investment needed to rebuild it.

The war in Syria has killed more than 560,000 people, the vast majority by regime-allied forces. The Assad government has used chemical weapons against civilians on scores of occasions and holds tens of thousands in prison facing torture and execution. Despite the regime calling for refugees to return to the country, over one million people are still listed as wanted on government databases, with those Syrians who supported the opposition fearing state reprisals.

READ: Syria: Over 300 chemical attacks by Assad forces, says report

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