Posted by Alex on Monday, March 5th, 2007
Written and POSTED BY ALEX.
March 5, 2007 for "Syria Comment"
Ibrahim Hamidi wrote in Al-Hayat today about the new, more constructive tone in Damascus:
President Bashar Assad spoke about the historic relationship between his father, late president Hafez Assad, and King Abdallah. He spoke about the personal respect he has for the Saudi king and for the significance of Syrian-Saudi relationships.
After a meeting with the Saudi envoy to Damascus, a marked change in the tone of Syrian media outlets has been discernible. Many journalists, from both state-owned as well as privately owned media outlets, were criticized by government agents for their previous criticism of Saudi role.
In sharp contrast to the general movement towards Syrian Saudi reconciliation, prominent Saudi journalist Mr. Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, director of Al-Arabia Satellite TV station, and ex-editor of the largest Saudi owned newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote today an exceptionally negative piece on Syria. He even ended it with a strong warning.
Here is a translation and breakdown of the article:
The crisis between Damascus and Riyadh is a complex one that got worse with:
– Syria’s reaction to the adoption of UN resolution 1559
– The assassination of Rafiq Hariri which was “the biggest shock to Saudi Arabia” because of Saudi suspicions that Syria was behind the assassination.
– Syria’s role in facilitating infiltration of Saudis nationals wanting to fight in Iraq
– Syria’s open smears regarding Prince Bandar “the Personal Saudi envoy to Damascus”
– Attitudes that accompanied Hizbollah’s war with Israel
– The language used in the Syrian president’s speech who surprised all the Arabs with his attacks on Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian leaders.
– Syria’s “open alliance with Iran against the Gulf countries, Egypt, and the rest of Arabs”
– Vice president Sharaa stating that there is a personal component to the Saudi leadership’s problems with Damascus.
– Syria’s support for Lebanese opposition in their attempts to undermine the Seniora government.
Al-Rashed claims that after this “extreme deterioration” in the relations between the two countries over the past two years, Syria now feels that the upcoming Arab summit is its only hope “after it has lost almost everything .. even its ally Iran showed readiness to sell Syria at the first opportunity”
Mr. Al-Rashed then compared Bashar’s approach today to that of late President Hafez Assad, who, Al-Rashed claims, always moved quickly to fix Syrian mistakes that led to problems in Syria’s relations with Saudi Arabia. For example, he lists:
– Syrian attacks on the PLO forces during the early stages of Lebanon’s civil war.
– Syrian attacks on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood
– Syria’s decision not to side with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in his first war against Iran.
Syria’s actions over the past two years have been bewildering, Al-Rashid insists. Syria destroyed its most significant alliance in the region (that with Saudi Arabia). As a result, Syria became exposed to “internal, regional and international hazards”.
This is how he perceives the state of Syria prior to the upcoming Arab summit.
He explains that political differences among enemies are never impossible to fix, so it should not be impossible to do so among brothers. But Syria will be mistaken if it believes that its disagreements with Saudi Arabia are based on personal issues. The way Syria opened the door for Iran into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestine is not a simple matter… it changes the map of the Middle East and it leaves the door wide open to a major war … with sectarian, security, regional, and international aspects.
The article is concluded with a warning: If Syria does not take steps to fix the causes of its problems with Saudi Arabia, then the Arab summit will not save Syria from a dark future ahead … Syria is responsible for its own encirclement.
Questions and background:
Mr Al-Rashed’s tone and his long list of alleged Saudi grievances with the two Assads, lead to the following question:
What exactly does Saudi Arabia stand for?
It is obvious that Syria cannot please all the Saudis all the time… Saudi Arabia has many, often contradictory requirements. Saudi journalists have been critical of the Syrians for many reasons: Syria is not democratic; Syria is giving a role to non-Arab and non-Sunni Iran in Arab affairs; Syria is helping the Iraqi Sunnis; Syria did not expel the leader of Hamas from Damascus, when the US insisted that he do so. Later, the Kingdom seems to have reversed its positions on these same issues. Just like Syria, the Saudis warmly welcomed Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Mecca, and closely coordinated with Iran officials their joint proposed solutions to many Arab conflicts. What is it exactly that they still do not like in Syria's behavior? The lack of Democracy?
Mr. Al-Rashed’s argument that during the past two years the Syrian regime has made many mistakes leading to an unprecedented deterioration in Syrian Saudi relations in not entirely convincing.
The proof is in going back two years to an article by another prominent Journalist, Mr. Mamoun Fandy, close friend of many members of the Saudi Royal Family. In a 2005 article in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Mr. Fandy was already warning Syria that it had one last chance to make dramatic changes in its position or it would slide toward hell at the speed of light (that was two years ago):
“Syria is now in real trouble. What can be done to save Syrian people from paying the price of their governments wrong decisions? The solution is a meeting between all Arab countries including Syria, on the condition that Syria listens without being allowed a single one of its long disdainful speeches. The aim of such a meeting would be to give Syria a political cover to use in coming out of its current bottleneck. It would also present Syria with a frame to preserve its dignity as it withdraws from the pack of policies that reflect a state of obstinacy. Without such rapid Syrian withdrawal and without a similarly rapid Arab political involvement we will watch Syria move confidently towards hell with the speed of light. A group of foolish Arabs will remain applauding Syria as it heads to the bottom of the rank of Arab nationalism. I also hope that Syria will not imagine that this scenario will take many years to be executed, or that the Bush regime may have departed before the effects fully impact Syria.”
President Assad was not impressed by Fandy's "last chance" warnings. Instead, Assad announced his decision to defy Saudi Arabia and resist US pressure in a speech at the University of Damascus in November 2005, during which he said:
“Many times we read or hear from foreign emissaries that the reason some foreign officials in these countries are angry… The reason they are angry at Syria is that President Bashar Al-Assad made a commitment to them to carry out internal reform, and has not done so. I didn’t know that the Syrian people appointed them as representatives instead of his parliament members, and President Bashar is supposed to make commitments to these foreign officials. I didn’t know they cared for us more than we care for ourselves. I didn’t know someone appointed them to be in charge of us and to give us grades… The region is now facing two options alone: either resistance and steadfastness, or anarchy. There is no third option. Resistance prevents anarchy. Resistance has a price, and anarchy has a price, but the price of the resistance and steadfastness is much lower than the price of anarchy.”
The death of Hafez Assad and the demise of Iraq’s strong man, Saddam Hussein, created a perceived "leadership gap" in the area. America, Saudi Arabia, and Iran competed to fill the vacuum.
Those presidents and kings who attended Hafez Assad's funeral in 2000 all wanted to change Syria's traditional role in the region. They believed that they could take the young and unproven Bashar al-Assad under their wings and direct him to abandon Syria's positions on Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. President Bashar al-Assad turned out to have a mind of his own and refused to cooperate with the KSA, France or Jordan, causing grave concern about his leadership abilities. The first real test for Bashar al-Assad was the US invasion of Iraq. His refusal to cooperate with America's invasion meant Syria was elevated to the status of an adjunct participant in the "axis of evil."
Here are photos of the presidents and kings who attended the funeral of Hafez al-Assad in 2000.
Rather than supporting the US in its invasion of Iraq, both Syria and Iran competed with the Untied States to share the Iraq pie. Syria and Iran made gains in Palestine through their Hamas allies. Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the French took Lebanon away from Syria and probably had plans to "change Syria's behavior", preferably through regime-change in Damascus. Because of the lack of a better candidate, ex-Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam was floated as a possible alternative president for Syria. He is known to be a friend of President Chirac, King Abdallah, and the Late Rafiq Hariri.
Thomas Friedman’s syndicated columns are translated every week and published in the Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. A few weeks ago his column did not appear in the Saudi paper, however. In that column he explained his preference for Iran over Saudi Arabia as the more natural future ally of the USA in the Middle East.
The Saudis are worried that the Untied states will eventually talk to Iran. When this happens, there are many reasons to believe that the Americans will rediscover the tremendous utility of Iran. Should Washington find common ground with Tehran, it will be at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s exclusive role as US ally and heavy hitter in the Middle East.
Today’s article by Mr. Al-Rashed reflects Saudi fears, which are mixed with self confidence and even arrogance. The kingdom is feeling both powerful and vulnerable at the same time… just as Syria and Iran do.
Hopefully, at the upcoming Iraq round-table meeting, all the competitors (The US, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran) will find a way to reach an acceptable compromise over who will play what regional role for how long and towards what purpose. It seems that Syria’s request that the meeting not restrict discussions to the subject of Iraq will be accommodated, if not at the table, then through the Iranian/Saudi negotiations in Riyadh and elsewhere. For example, a new Lebanon agreement seems to be in the making. Syria has already given the Saudis a gift by facilitating the Mecca agreement. A lot more give and take can be expected.
Still, coming to total agreement will be difficult, if not impossible. There are too many players sitting at the table and there are too many conflicts to be managed.
One fears that another round of muscle flexing might be necessary to better determine the strength of each player. An Israeli summer war against Hizbollah or Syria is not out of the question. Neither is an American attack on Iran, or Sunni-Shia confrontations in Iraq or Lebanon. Al-Rashed's clear warnings to Syria might be connected to joint American and Saudi plans to destabilize Syria, as reported by Seymour Hersh in his article in the New Yorker last week, in which he writes:
This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
Hopefully, the competing powers in the region will have the wisdom to diffuse the simmering conflicts that threaten to drag the region into another round of blood letting. Much hangs in the balance during the next month of conferences and negotiations.