Posted by Joshua on Saturday, August 18th, 2007
Sharaa delivered a loaded speech a few days ago, criticizing Saudi Arabia's foreign policy for being in a state of paralysis because it could neither act independently of the US nor influence US policy positively. He lamented the disunity and "disintegration" in the Arab world, attacked Arab countries that are establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and are thus creating a "rift" in the Arab world, and criticized Saudi Arabia, which, he said, is refusing to maintain good relations with Syria. For an English translation read Memri's summary of Sharaa's speech here. It is an important statement of where Syria stands and how it sees the foreign policies of not just Saudi Arabia, but also the US, Israel, Lebanon, and Iran. (If Memri is blocked in Syria, let me know and I will post the entire thing in English.)
The Saudis responded with an anti-Syrian blast of their own yesterday, claiming that Syria is the country without a proper policy in the region. The question that seemed to be bandied about was whose fault it was that Syrian-Saudi relations were so bad. Sharaa said that Syria wanted good relations, but that Saudi Arabia prevented them. He pointed to the recent Iraq security meeting in Damascus to which the Saudis had refused to send even a low level deputy.
An anonymous Saudi responded as follows:
“The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has followed with great surprise the distasteful statements recently made by … Shara, which included numerous lies and fallacies aimed at harming us,” said the statement, quoting an unnamed official sourced and carried by the official Saudi Press Agency SPA late on Thursday.
“Talk about the paralysis of the kingdom’s Arab and Islamic role does not come from a rational and prudent person, as this role is well known to everyone … Perhaps Mr Shara had a slip of the tongue and meant by paralysis the policy he speaks for.”
"God willing, every Syrian and Saudi is keen on maintaining and strengthening this (Arab) brotherhood, despite the abominable voices and their owners who will vanish in the wind.”
This spat comes just as Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq is due to visit Damascus, where he will meet with top Syrian politicians. Saudi Arabia is not pleased with the Maliki government, which it accuses of being bad to Iraqi Sunnis and good to Iran and Shiites. Syria has complained about the same thing, but is nevertheless improving relations with Iraq. It hosted a security conference for Iraqis and neighbors a week ago. It cancelled an Iraqi opposition conference just before that.
Why is Syria engaged in this rapprochement right now?
Sami Moubayed has a very good article about Maliki's visit here. Even he seems a bit perplexed, as Maliki's government is not popular in Syria. Assad has given it a cold shoulder in the past. As Moubayed writes:
There are millions of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis, who do not trust either Maliki or the political system of the post-Saddam era. It is one thing for them when pro-American regimes recognize this government, but completely something else when this recognition comes from a credible neighbor like Syria; a country still seen in the eyes of millions as the only remaining champion of Arab nationalism and anti-Americanism.
Syria actually helped legitimize Maliki in the eyes of Iraqi skeptics. In March 2007, Syria attended a security meeting in Iraq, then followed up by attending the Sharm al-Sheikh summit in Egypt, which resulted in the much-publicized meeting between Moualem and Rice. The two officials discussed Iraq.
I have long been doubtful that Syria would embrace US policy in Iraq by throwing its support behind Maliki's government. Here is why I think Syria is reversing its policy, even if only in part. It is only a guess. One is that Syria is indeed frightened by what Iraq might look like should Maliki's government collapse. It is anxious that greater chaos in Iraq will negatively impact Syria. Two is that Syria is using its pro-Iraq policy to break out of its diplomatic isolation, which is largely imposed by the US. Nevertheless, Sharaa was not kind to the US in his speech and all but dismissed US sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Abbas government in Palestine.
Syria has only recently begun to feel confident that it has won its battle against the US. It no longer sees destabilization by the US or economic strangulation as its number one foreign policy concern. It now feels reasonably confident that the US will begin pulling out of Iraq within a year, not only because the US military cannot sustain the numbers in Iraq, but because most presidential front runners in the US are talking about a US withdrawal, even if not immediately. This means that Syria, along with Iraq's other neighbors, will inherit the Iraq mess reasonably soon. It will also inherit the Maliki government for better or worse, if it hasn't collapse by then. Syria and Iran would probably prefer to inherit the Maliki government than any of its alternatives. I am not sure Saudi Arabia has made this calculation yet. In any event, Syria calculates that cooperating with the Maliki government even if it does collapse can no longer do it any harm.
Having a relatively weak Shiite coalition government in place in Iraq is better for Syria than chaos.
Saudi Arabia's position toward the Maliki government is unclear. Some Saudi officials have indicated that their government will support Sunni Iraqi militias against a Shiite led government that is pro-Iranian. Syria has indicated that it could pursue such a policy as well in the past. It has give asylum to Sunni opposition members and hosted Iraqi opposition group meetings. This common Saudi-Syrian policy of favoring Iraq's Sunnis led me to conjecture in the past that once the US pulled out of Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia would work toward elaborating a common pro-Sunni policy in Iraq. Saudi Arabia's refusal to send a delegate to the security conference in Damascus argues against this interpretation. Perhaps a reason for Sharaa's evident anger at SA's refusal is because Syria has been counting on a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement as the US prepares to withdraw from Iraq. Whether his outburst was motivated by differences over Lebanon, Iraq, or a combination of the two, I cannot say.
Syria has positioned itself between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraq. Iran and Syria do not see eye to eye on the future of Iraq. Sharaa, referring to Syria's relations with Iran, said that Iran's position on Iraq differs from that of Syria, which wants "a united, independent, and Arab" Iraq. But it has been silent on an Iraq controlled by Shiites. This is because Syria understands that Iraq will largely be controlled by Shiites in the future. Saudi Arabia does not seem to have entirely come to grips with this fact. Saudi Arabia's anti-Shiite policies, whether in Iraq or Lebanon present a major obstacle to improved Syrian-Saudi relations.
Here is Moubayed's summation of the history and reasons for improved relations between the two countries:
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is scheduled to arrive in Damascus for a two-day visit on Monday. This will be his first visit to the Syrian capital – where he lived as a refugee in the 1990s during the Saddam Hussein years – since becoming prime minister in April 2006.
Maliki is due to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari, Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Abrash, Vice President Farouk al-Shara and Foreign
Minister Walid al-Moualem. They are to discuss security and the political situation in Iraq.
Syria, which was reluctant at first to welcome the Iraqi leader, finally approved his visit, stressing that talks must deal with reconciliation, fair and balanced political representation of the Sunnis, amending the de-Ba'athification laws and articles in the Iraqi constitution that deal with federalism – a concept that the Syrians curtly refuse.
These were not conditions, the Syrians stated, but points of discussion. Moualem was quoted saying that his country "looks for finer political, security and economic relations with Iraq". The US has not commented on the visit, but if it produces results, then this is good news for the Bush White House.
After visiting Tehran this month, Maliki was scrutinized by President George W Bush, who said: "My message to him is, when we catch you playing a non-constructive role [with the Iranians], there will be a price to pay." This was in reference to Maliki's statement that Iran is playing a "positive and constructive" role in "providing security and fighting terrorism in Iraq".
Syria started to reconcile with the Maliki regime in late 2006. This came shortly after British prime minister Tony Blair sent an envoy to Damascus, telling the Syrians that it was in the international community's best interest that Syria recognizes – and supports – Maliki and the political system in Iraq.
Syria had tried before – during the era of prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (Maliki's predecessor) – and invited him to Damascus, but the visit was vetoed by the US administration. The US, in 2003-06, had blamed the Syrians for all of the worries in Iraq, claiming that Syria was keeping lax security on the border and helping – or turning a blind eye to – insurgents crossing the border to fight the Americans. Syria repeatedly denied the charges.
By 2006, and after the Iraqi Study Group report in the US, it was clear to the US that the violence was not produced, nor supported by, the Syrians. Syria, however, could help control it. Blair's envoy had been to Washington DC and met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who seconded the British approach towards Syria. Syria responded promptly. It sent Moualem to Baghdad, where he received a red carpet welcome from Maliki, and opened up an embassy in Iraq.
Just for the record, here is the Saudi part of Sharaa's speech which set off the most recent round of the Syrian-Saudi feud. Sharaa spells it out very bluntly … The Mecca agreement was done in Damascus but the Saudis asked Syria if it was OK if they could announce it in Mecca.
The Saudis responded to Syria's claim that it had confected the PLO-Hamas cohabitation in these words: “Shara’s claim that the Mecca agreement … had been agreed in Damascus is an unforgivable insult to the Palestinian leaderships,” the Saudi statement said.
Addendum: (Sunday August 19, 2007) from AP:
DAMASCUS, Syria: Syria said Saturday that recent comments by the country's vice president reputedly criticizing Saudi Arabia were misreported, an attempt to quell growing tension over the remarks.
Saudi Arabia lashed out at Syria on Thursday after Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa reportedly said the kingdom — the Mideast's key Sunni power player — had become semi-paralyzed and was to blame for Palestinian infighting.
But Syria's official SANA news agency quoted an unnamed official Saturday as denying al-Sharaa criticized Saudi Arabia. Instead, he stressed his country's desire to heal the rift with Riyadh.
"The brotherhood between the Syrian and Saudi people is a real one that has withstood different crises … and Syria is aimed at reviving Arab solidarity and strengthening it to serve the national and pan-Arab interest," the official was quoted as saying.