The Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer Al-Sabhan visited eastern Syria and met US officials over the weekend. It is his second known visit since 2017 when he traveled to Raqqa after its liberation from Islamic State. The visit has fueled rumors that the US, perhaps with Saudi Arabia’s support, will continue to invest in eastern Syria.
Sabhan appears to have gone to Syria after he attended the inauguration of the new Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani on June 10. Saudi Arabia invested $100 million in efforts to stabilize eastern Syria in October 2018. The US-led anti-ISIS Coalition and its Syrian Democratic Forces partners have been trying to revive eastern Syria after years of conflict. Raqqa fell in 2017 and ISIS was fully defeated in March near the Euphrates river. But ISIS sleeper cells continue to carry out attacks and saboteurs have burned fields across eastern Syria.
The US said it would leave Syria in December 2018, reversing what had seemed like policy commitment to Syria. US President Donald Trump felt it was time to wrap things up, but he was convinced to keep a small force in Syria. Nevertheless the major investment by the US State Department and other parts of the government was reduced. The US plans for “stabilization” seemed on hold. Now in the summer of 2019 things may be changing again.
Reports on social media indicate the Sabhan was in eastern Syria and met with US deputy special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition. Roebuck was in Syria on June 13 visiting Ain Issa, according the Kurdish news site Rudaw. “The key is to help the SDF and Syrian Democratic Council with the issue of security,” Roebuck said. It was part of a transition from military operations to counter-terrorism.
However Al-Sabhan also reportedly met with representatives of tribes in Deir Ezzor province according to a tweet by writer Saad Abedine. Lawk Ghafuri, a human rights activist, also tweeted photos of the visit. The issue of the importance of the tribes has been highlighted recently, especially frustration they have with the SDF. The US wants to make sure that calm continues, especially as Washington faces challenges from Iran, criticism by Russia, Syrian regime agendas and also difficult tensions with Turkey over plans for a “safe zone” in northern Syria. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are at odds on a number of issues.
Now Iranian and Turkish media have accused the Saudis and the Americans of being involved in shady activities in eastern Syria. Anadolu news in Turkey accuses Riyadh of supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which Ankara claims is linked to the SDF. “Saudi minister has asked support for the YPG/PKK terror group from Arab tribes,” the report claims. Al-Sabhan met with representatives of the tribes at Al-Omar oilfield, where the US has a base, according to the report. Pro-Syrian regime websites also reported the visit.
Iran’s Fars News in English also claimed that the visit was part of a larger plan to turn a military airport near Tabqa into a larger base. Tabqa is a site of a dam and a former Syrian regime base where ISIS committed a massacre in August 2014. In March the US and SDF launched an amphibious operation and liberated the area from ISIS.
Fars News claims that local media, including “Step News” reported that residents of Tabqa are unhappy with the US plans. According to Fars the US Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn was also present at the meetings. This irks Iran because Rayburn recently announced sanctions against a Syrian businessman named Samer Fox, accusing him of being linked to the regime. US officials were also recently in Cairo to discuss the region and Syria.
If the reports are accurate the picture being painted is that six months after the US said it would leave Syria, Washington is trying to lay the groundwork to make eastern Syria more stable, in line with what it wanted to do last year. This means working with the tribal concerns in Deir Ezzor and balancing that with the SDF’s role as well as concerns Turkey has about PKK-linked groups. How the US will thread this needle has never been clear. Even with Saudi investment or Saudi Arabia agreeing to be a mediator with large Sunni Arab tribes, it’s unclear how the US will ever make its safe zone concept work in northern Syria. The US also faces a crises with Iran and Turkey. This puts eastern Syria in a difficult spot. A poor area recovering from the war on ISIS, for eastern Syria to remain stable the US will need many things to go its favor.