When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980 the late King Khalid of Saudi Arabia called for an urgent meeting of his top officials to discuss the explosive situation in the Gulf. Some Saudi officials were expecting the Syrians to side with Saddam Hussain against rising Persian influence in the Arab world. King Khalid, however, thought otherwise, seeing Syrian support for Iran as a blessing in disguise for the Arabs. The Arabs needed a trustworthy backchannel to Tehran, he told his top aides, and if Damascus had not stood by the Iranians and gained their trust, he would have personally intervened to request such a position from the Syrians.

That story pretty much explains the new understanding in Syrian-Saudi relations, 30-years down the road. The two countries, so different when it comes to secularism versus theocracy, have always worked shoulder-to-shoulder, collaborating to combat European imperialism during the 1930s, thwarting Nazi influence among Arabs and Muslims in the 1940s, Hashemite hegemony over the Middle East during the 1950s, Israeli bullying from the 1960s onwards, and Al-Qaida-like terrorism since 2001. Bilateral relations plummeted after Rafik Hariri's 2005 murder and during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.

The two countries famously settled their differences at a summit over Gaza in January 2009, realising that what united them on various Arab issues was much greater than what divided them over Lebanon. One of these issues was Hamas. After the Gaza War it was crystal clear that no solution could be hammered out in Palestine without Syrian support, regardless of how engaged the Egyptians were with Fatah. The Syrians had the ear of heavyweights in Hamas who relied on them for advice and consultation. The incoming Obama administration had already begun engagement with Damascus, making it only logical for Arab states to follow suit. Neither Obama nor Saudi Arabia were interested in breaking the Damascus-Tehran alliance or in severing Syria's excellent relationship with non-state-players such as Hamas and Hezbollah. On the contrary, it was believed that King Abdullah began to see these alliances as assets rather than obstacles to Syrian-Saudi relations when it came to influencing Palestinian politics.

Over the past year, Hamas has indeed shown a more pragmatic approach, accepting the borders of 1967, welcoming US engagement on Middle East peace — rather than simply a truce — and finally, saying that it will no longer oppose King Abdullah's peace initiative (delivered at the Beirut Summit in 2002). All of that is music to the ears of Riyadh and could not have been achieved without the Syrians. What is now needed, as far as the Saudi king is concerned, is similar diplomacy with Fatah — this time via Egypt — to secure an inter-Palestinian rapprochement and an end to the Gaza Strip-West Bank divide.

Common ground

Additionally, over the past two years, the two countries have found plenty of common ground on Iraq. Saudi Arabia was furious with how Nouri Al Maliki handled Iraqi affairs since coming to power in 2006. It believed that Al Maliki had deliberately sidelined Iraqi Sunnis from the political process, refusing to grant an amnesty to set thousands of Sunnis free, or amend de-Baathification laws that targeted the Iraqi Sunni community. Al Maliki's Iraq was becoming increasingly worrying for Riyadh. As far as the Saudis were concerned, Al Maliki was to blame. Syria was equally unimpressed with the Iraqi premier, who it had helped to support by opening an embassy in Baghdad, thereby legitimising him in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis who had previously regarded him as nothing but an Iranian creation or an American stooge. In the summer of 2009, Al Maliki had accused Syria of harbouring former Baathists who were responsible for triple attacks in Baghdad. Furious, Syria had recalled its ambassador to Iraq and reasoned that engagement with the Al Maliki administration was becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

The two countries see a vacuum forming in Iraq that they need to fill. Both oppose any further partitioning or the granting of autonomy to the Shiites in the south. Both want to see Iraqi Sunnis empowered and an end to Al Maliki. The Saudis understand that Syria has added value in Iraq because it has influence where they do not, such as in Moqtada Al Sadr's Sadr City. When they collaborated during the provincial elections of 2009, Iraqi Sunnis voted in large numbers — even in places that were previously hotbeds of the Sunni insurgency. They did so again during parliamentary elections in March, helping the secular Eyad Allawi obtain 91 seats in parliament. At the Beirut Summit last month, the two countries joined together once more to oppose the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that will probably find Hezbollah officials responsible for Hariri's death. Syria wants Saudi collaboration to shelter Hezbollah from an international conspiracy while the Saudis want Syria to help ensure that no unrest breaks out in Beirut.

Syria is making its presence felt in Lebanon while Saudi Arabia holds sway in Iraq. This shows the strength of what Lebanese Speaker Nabih Berri calls the SS factor.


Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.