Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged with genocide in Darfur, made a historic trip to Damascus to meet Syrian president Bashar Assad. It was the first visit by an Arab leader since the civil war in Syria began in 2011. Syrian media treated Bashir's arrival on Monday like a celebrity trip, highlighting his visit and noting that Sudan and Syria could work together on issues affecting the Arab region.
SANA state media in Damascus said that Bashir had expressed support for Syria regaining its "health" after years of war and retaking a role in the Arab region. Sudan said it supported Syria's "territorial integrity" and would provide support to Syria. Sudan is a poor country that relies on other countries, increasingly Turkey, for investment, so it is not in a position to actually help Damascus. However, Sudan is an important member of the Arab League, and both Saudi Arabia and Turkey see Sudan as an ally in regional affairs.
Qatar's Al-Jazeera and Iran's Press TV both highlighted the visit, without mentioning any negative connotations attached to it, such as the human rights record of both Sudan and Syria. Press TV emphasized that Sudan and Syria both oppose the West's interference in the region, and that Sudan and Syria should concentrate on "Arabism" and "Arab causes." Iran's media tried to argue that Saudi Arabia was at fault for "arming militants seeking to overthrow the government of Assad." The meeting came as Assad also met Hossein Jaberi Ansari, an advisor to Iran's foreign minister. The coincidence should not be overlooked that a Sudanese delegation was in Damascus just when the Iranians were. Syria is trying to show it is not isolated and that it can defeat "foreign interference," which increasingly is the way Damascus refers to the role of the US in eastern Syria and Turkey in the north.
Turkish media ignored the Sudanese visit, which is interesting because Turkey and Sudan have become close allies in recent years, with numerous high level visits by Turkish officials, including the Turkish president and military leaders. Turkey is now investing in Sudan's historic Red Sea port of Suakin 50 km. south of Port sudan.
Al-Jazeera wondered if the visit means there will be a thaw in relations between Syria and the Arab League. The 22-member Arab League had expelled Syria when the civil war began. Many Arab states have aided the Syrian opposition. Al-Jazeera argued that some of these states, such as Kuwait and Jordan, have seemed open to discussions with Syria. Turkey, Iran and Russia are discussing a constitutional committee for post-war Syria, and Turkey's foreign minister told the Doha Forum on Sunday that if Syria had democratic elections then the region should be willing to work with Damascus.
This indicates a thaw in relations between Syria and some of its former adversaries. The question is whether the Sudanese visit was a trial balloon for more visits by regional leaders. Judging by the media coverage it appears that Qatar and Iran both felt the visit went well. Turkish and Saudi Arabian media ignored the historic trip initially. However the growing alliance between Sudan and Turkey should indicate that Turkey was aware of the visit and approved of it. This may mean that Turkey is inching closer to discussions with Syria.
For now, Turkey works through Russian and Iranian channels in discussions about Idlib and other areas in northern Syria where Turkish-backed opposition groups are located. Saudi Arabia may also see reasons to thaw relations with Syria, if it thinks the regime could be pried away from Iran. But that seems unlikely as Syria's Assad was hosting Iranians at the same time as the Sudanese. This means that Riyadh doesn't gain anything by Bashir's visit.
Is there a third possibility, namely that the visit is part of growing discussions about the Yemen war where the Saudi-backed alliance has been discussing a ceasefire with the Iranian-backed Houthis? The rhetoric from the Sudanese visit is decidedly anti-Western, whereas Saudi Arabia is still in the western camp. That would appear to indicate the real story behind Bashir's visit is about Sudan working with Syria and Turkey, not part of a Saudi agenda.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.