Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has met with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad in a bid to restore diplomatic ties between the two countries. The meeting marks a significant shift in Tunisia’s relationship with Syria, which was long one of Assad’s strongest critics.
Diplomatic relations between Syria and Tunisia were cut in 2012 during the civil war that followed President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on mass protests against his rule. However, Mikdad’s three-day visit to Tunisia is aimed at restoring relations, and he also met with Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar.
President Saied stressed Tunisia’s willingness to intensify cooperation in a range of bilateral issues and on the common cultural bonds. Tunisia’s bid to move toward a new chapter is a glaring example of how things have changed in the region over the past decade: Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements that spread as far as Syria in 2011, but today, Tunisia’s leadership is swinging back toward authoritarianism and is allying anew with Assad’s Syria.
Earlier this month, the Tunisian president ordered the appointment of an ambassador to Damascus, after the Syrian government’s decision to reopen its embassy in Tunis and appoint an ambassador. In February, Saied had announced his decision to raise the level of Tunisian diplomatic representation in Damascus, and said that the crisis facing Assad’s government was “an internal matter that concerns only the Syrian people.” The move was made at the same time Tunisia was sending urgent humanitarian aid to Syria following the earthquake that killed tens of thousands there and in neighboring Turkey.
Mikdad’s visit to Tunisia is the second leg of a trip that began in Algeria, one of the few Arab countries that maintained diplomatic relations with Syria during its civil war. Syria was widely shunned by Arab governments over Assad’s 2011 crackdown on protesters, and Syria was ousted from the Arab League.
However, in recent years, as Assad consolidated control over most of the country, Syria’s neighbors have begun to take steps toward rapprochement. Saudi Arabia, one of Syria’s most outspoken critics, has also shown signs of improving relations with Damascus in recent months. Last week, Mikdad also traveled to Saudi Arabia.
The shift in Tunisia’s stance toward Syria comes as influential Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi was detained after a police search, in a move denounced by his supporters as a stepped-up effort by the president to quash Tunisia’s opposition. Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahdha party, is the most prominent critic of Saied.
Tunisia’s shift in policy toward Syria may be seen as a pragmatic move to shore up diplomatic and economic ties with its neighbors in a region that has been racked by political upheaval and conflict for over a decade. However, it may also be viewed as a worrying sign of Tunisia’s own shift away from democratic values and toward authoritarianism.