Posted by Joshua on Monday, March 16th, 2009
Saudi Arabia has been adrift since Obama won elections in the US. Having tailored its foreign policy over the last 8 years to President Bush’s, even if unhappily, Riyadh must tack with Washington’s new direction. The problem is that Washington’s direction is not yet clear. US diplomats say they are going to change fundamental policies and are engaging Syria and Iran, accommodating themselves to Lebanon’s Doha agreement, and preparing definitively to turn Iraq over to Shiite leadership. None of this makes Saudi Arabia happy, but what can it do? Its partners of the last two decades, Egypt and Israel, are of little use to Saudi Arabia today. Egypt has no regional plan and is looking inward in preparation for the dynastic hand off. Israel is not interested in cultivating its Saudi alliance. Netanyahu brushes off talk of compromise with Palestinians and continues to embarrass Arab “moderates” who look to it for regional leadership and support against Iran.
The US is not so much preparing to “change” its policies in the region as to withdraw from the commitments that President Bush got it into. What are these commitments? Occupying Iraq, pulling Lebanon out of Syria’s sphere of influence, destroying Hizbullah, supporting Israel without public criticism… and, I would add, preventing Iran from developing the capability to build nuclear weapons. Backing away from the commitment to use force against Iran if diplomacy fails will be the most difficult. Today, Obama still claims Washington will use force against Iran. No one believes this threat; it should never have been made. Obama will have to find a way to climb down from such over-wrought fulminations. Hopefully, Tehran will help him retreat gracefully.
Washington’s retreat from Bush’s irresponsible overreach, is embarrassing Saudi Arabia, which must find a way to once again accommodate Syria’s influence in Lebanon and do business with Damascus as it stands by Hamas and sticking pins into Israel to get back the Golan. Saudi and Egypt made a big bet on Bush’s Strategy; they lost. Now Saudi Arabia will have to back away from its Israel strategy, which consists of pretending that the “Saudi” peace plan and the PLO remain operational. Everyone knows they are not. The two state solution is finished. So is the PLO ….. that is so long as it retains the “L” between the “P” and “O”.
Most importantly, Saudi Arabia will have to acculturate to the end of Sunni domination in the Arab World. Shiite culture and influence are here to stay. Thirty years of Islamic rule in Iran, the consolidation of Shiite rule in Iraq, and the emergence of Hizbullah as the strongest force in Lebanon are testimony to the arrival of Shiism. It is transforming the political architecture of the region. Wahhabism cannot sustain itself or guide Arabia as an ideology of state in its present blinkered and puritanical form. The Saudis will have to broaden their narrow outlook on Islam if they intend to remain a source of compromise and unity in the Arab world. Enduring political unity must be accompanied by ideological accommodation.
News Round up: The best articles on the mini Arab summit
Why Syria and Saudi Arabia are talking again
It’s about Iran, Iraq, and Israel. The two foes planned to meet in Riyadh Wednesday to solidify Arab unity amid regional volatility.
By Nicholas Blanford | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Saudi Arabia’s steps to end its bitter dispute with Syria appear to be aimed at unifying Arabs against a trio of growing concerns: Iran’s spreading influence in the region, the uncertainties of a US drawdown in Iraq, and the prospect of a right-wing government in Israel.
Saudi outreach follows Washington’s tentative reengagement with Damascus, a move that diplomats hope will have more success in weaning Syria away from its Iranian ally than the Bush administration’s policy of isolation.
“The Saudis want to get Syria away from Iran,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Washington’s style is to try engagement as well, so the Arabs are trying their best to get Syria on board.”
After a month of shuttle diplomacy, Saudi King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah will meet for a fence-mending summit in Riyadh Wednesday.
The rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia followed the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese former prime minister who was close to the kingdom’s ruling family. The Syrian regime remains a leading suspect in the assassination, although it denies involvement.
The Bush administration, angered by Syrian meddling in Iraq and support for anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, imposed sanctions and froze ties with Damascus in 2005. In response, Syria strengthened its relationship with Iran and sat out President Bush’s final term.
The result: an Arab world split between Western-backed Sunni states (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and allies of Shiite Iran (Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Palestinian Hamas).
Relations between Egypt and Syria have also been cold, the result of tension between Cairo and Tehran. In December, Mr. Mubarak reportedly criticized Iran’s expanding influence, saying: “The Persians are trying to swallow up the Arab states.”
Arab fears of Iranian expansionism were compounded by recent unrest by Shiites in the Gulf. In December and January, Shiites rioted in Bahrain following the arrest of several Shiites on terrorism charges. In January, Saudi Shiites launched rare demonstrations after an altercation between police and Shiite worshippers in Medina.
The unrest does not appear to have been stirred by Iran, but does serve to warn Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that marginalized Shiites could provide an opening for Iranian penetration.
However, a return to traditional diplomacy by the Obama administration appears to have encouraged Saudi Arabia to bridge the rift with Syria. At an economic summit in Kuwait in January, King Abdullah invited the Syrian and Egyptian leaders to a lunch at his private residence. That ice-breaker was followed by reciprocal visits by the Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers that paved the way for the Riyadh summit.
“I do think that one of the reasons Saudi Arabia wanted to patch up with Damascus is that it realized that there was no sense in pursuing a policy that had repeatedly failed since 2006, being on bad terms with Damascus,” says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.
Even Egypt appears to have swallowed its anger at Syria, recognizing that Damascus has influence over the Palestinian unity talks under way in Cairo.
“Egypt knows very well that for the Cairo dialogue to succeed it will need the goodwill of Syria,” says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
Last week, Jeffrey Feltman, acting US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official, met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem in Damascus, the first visit to Syria by senior US officials in four years. Mr. Feltman described the meeting as “constructive,” suggesting it could pave the way for further talks.
Whether the overtures will lure Syria from Iran’s orbit remains to be seen. Syria has employed a fence-straddling strategy to deflect international pressure. It held indirect talks with Israel last year and helped broker an end to the political impasse in Lebanon, yet it continues to support Hamas and Hezbollah and has tightened military cooperation with Iran.
“Syria is exploiting the [international] paranoia over Iran very cleverly,” says a Western diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Syria broke off the indirect negotiations with Israel in response to the Gaza war. But Mr. Assad has said he is willing to resume talks even with a right-wing Likud party-led government.
Reuters reported Wednesday that a Likud politician met Syrian diplomats in the US “and felt encouraged about peace prospects.”
But Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to be Israel’s next prime minister, has indicated he would prefer to concentrate on the Palestinian track.
Still, if the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement bears fruit, it could signal an easing of tensions in Lebanon before June polls – elections in which neither the Saudi and Western-backed parliamentary majority nor the Syrian-supported opposition are assured of victory.
“Elections in Lebanon are always decided by 11th hour deals [between rival factions] and if the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement continues it will impact positively on any 11th hour coalitions that are made,” says Bassel Salloukh, assistant professor of politics at the Lebanese American University.
Syrian-Saudi reconciliation also could facilitate a stable transition in Iraq when the US withdraw troops. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran will be vying to exert greater influence there. “Someone has to fill that vacuum,” says Mr. Moubayed. “Saudi Arabia has an ambition and so does Iran. Syria stands in the middle.”
Syria loyal to Iran after Riyadh meeting
Sat, 14 Mar 2009
Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Damascus says it will not abandon its strategic ties with Tehran, despite reports of a Saudi and Egyptian effort to distance the two allies.
Iran seen as target of Saudi overtures to Syria (Reuters)
By Alistair Lyon, 10 March 2009
BEIRUT – Bottling its irritation, Saudi Arabia is mending ties with Syria to restore a semblance of Arab harmony before a summit later this month, calm regional tensions and nudge Damascus towards cooling its alliance with Tehran.
After intensive advance diplomacy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will visit Riyadh on Wednesday, along with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, the state Saudi Press Agency reported.
While open to Arab detente, Assad has shown no readiness to sever a bond with non-Arab Iran that has lasted 29 years.
“Saudi Arabia’s top priority is to confront Iran and its agenda in the Arab world. The Saudis want to weaken Tehran’s cards in the Arab world, thus the new approach towards Syria,” said an Arab official with close ties to the Saudis.
“They know it’ll be very difficult to break the ties between Syria and Iran, but by showing the Syrians what they have to gain if they return to the Arab fold, they hope to weaken that alliance,” added the official, who asked not to be identified.
On its part, Syria is keen to cast off any remnants of the diplomatic isolation it endured after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri, a Saudi citizen and protege. Damascus denied any involvement in the killing, now the focus of an international tribunal that began work this month.
Furious with Saudi Arabia and Egypt for joining Western pressure that forced it to quit Lebanon in 2005, Syria hardened its alignment with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian Hamas militants in shared hostility to Israel and the United States and its conservative Arab allies.
Saudi Arabia tempered its anti-Syrian stance after Damascus backed last year’s Qatari-mediated deal among Lebanese factions and the new U.S. administration spoke of engaging with Damascus.
“It’s about teamwork, concerted Arab action,” Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, said. Syria’s presence “back in the team” would enable Lebanon’s election in June to take place without bloodshed, promote Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation talks and advance prospects for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, Khashoggi argued.
He said Saudi Arabia wanted Syria to cooperate on Lebanon, where the two countries support opposing political blocs, and think of its neighbour “as an equal, not a subordinate”. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a foe of Syria’s role, told Reuters last week that a thaw in Saudi-Syrian ties could reduce communal tensions and promote stability in his country.
“Half-Men” Slur Rankles…..
World Agenda: why Syria key to US hopes of unlocking Middle East
From Times Online
March 11, 2009
Her renewed efforts, which included sending top aides to meet Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s youthful President, last weekend, appear to be bearing fruit already. Mr al-Assad said this week that he was ready for direct talks with Israel if the United States were prepared to act as mediator.
“We need the United States to act as an arbitrator when we move from the current indirect negotiations to direct negotiations [with Israel],” he said, marking a potential step toward renewed ties with the West after years of isolation and encirclement.
America and its allies in the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, hope to bring Syria in from the cold by luring it away from Iran’s sphere of influence. Syria acts as a middle-man between the Tehran regime and the Arab militias of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Breaking that link would isolate Iran even more and bring pressure on its armed satellites, both of which have fought wars with Israel in the past two and a half years.
To that end, Saudia Arabia’s King Abdullah met yesterday with Mr al-Assad in Riyadh, marking an abrupt thaw in frosty ties…..
A key sticking point in any Israel-Syria talks will be Damascus’s demands for the return of the Golan Heights.
Most expect Syria to remain on its best behavior in Lebanon and Iraq for a while in case it is rewarded with better economic and diplomatic relations with the West.
Egypt needs Syria to help mediate a reconciliation between the Islamic militant group Hamas and the Palestinian Authority led by the Western-backed Mahmoud Abbas.
Saudi Arabia is, meanwhile, trying to get Syria back on the wagon of an Arab initiative, which offers Israel peace in exchange for the return of Arab land.
But if Syria doesn’t regain control over the Golan Heights, politicians and diplomats say, it’s hard to imagine why Damascus would let go of proxies such Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Israel has not appeared eager to give back the land. So the task of wooing Syria might not be easy after all.