Posted by Joshua on Monday, February 19th, 2007
Will Saudi Arabia Be Able to Solve America's Problems? Will it split Iran from Syria?
There has been considerable chest beating by supporters of the Bush administration over the prospect of splitting Syria from Iran and forcing it to relinquish, not only its Palestinian and Iraqi cards, but also its Lebanon card. As proof of Syria's impending downfall, they point to the frequent meetings between Saudi and Iranian mediators, which they claim cut Syria out of the picture. They point to the Mecca deal between Hamas and the PLO, brokered by Saudi Arabia, and to the failure of Hizbullah to carry out a coup against the American backed Siniora government, and even the impending downfall of Nabih Berri, the Shiite president of the Parliament. What is more, they point to new European resolve to back US attempts to impose sanctions on Syria and get the international court fully mandated to try Syria for the Hariri murder. Stratfor concludes its most recent report, claiming: "But from all appearances, the rumors of a rift between Iran and Syria may indeed have some merit."
This confidence seems far fetched, largely because it rests on fragile supports. First, it is driven by President Bush's success in pushing through his troop surge for Iraq in the face of democratic success at the polls and the Baker-Hamilton advice to return to diplomacy. This success will be temporary. The US cannot sustain the cost of or concentration on Iraq. Secondly, it is driven by the administration's seeming success in saddling up the Saudis to do the heavy lifting against Iran and Syria. Some argue that putting US eggs in Saudi Arabia's basket is smart and crafty. By playing on Muslim sectarian fears, the US can harness Sunnis to spend their money and political capital to defeat the growing Shi'a crescent.
No only is this unwise because Wahhabism, which under-girds Saudi legitimacy, is neither tolerant nor a force of moderation in the region, but also because Saudi interests diverge from those of the United States on several important points. Saudi Arabia is the spiritual heartland of al-Qaida. We do not need to be reminded that it gave birth to Bin Laden and most of the 9-11 bombers. Even if the Saudi political elite is capable, Wahhabism, on which it depends, constitutes the theological headwaters feeding the Jihadist swamp. In order to take on Iran and marshal Sunnis against Shiites, Saudi Arabia will be forced to put Wahhabi intolerance on steroids. Here are the words of a Syrian opposition member who has been enlisted to raise the banner of the Saudi jihad against Shiism in his article, "Safavid Sassanian Iranian plan to restore the Empire of Cyrus."
"While the Zionist plan targets Jerusalem, which is holy to us, the Safavid plan targets Mecca and Al-Madina. If you go back to their books – which they do not mention in the media, yet these books exist and are accepted by them – they claim that their Hidden Imam will come to Mecca and Al-Madina, destroy the Al-Haram Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet, and dig in the graves of Abu Bakr and Omar and burn them both, and then he will command the wind to blow them away. He will also dig in the grave of Aisha, the Mother of the Believers, and will execute her. All this is part of their plan."
This sort of bunkum is not what the US wants to promote. Stirring up sectarian hatreds and medieval myths will undercut any attempt to inculcate secular liberalism in the region. Secretary Rice knows this. She recently chided the Arabs for their failure to uphold Arab national bonds in the face of sectarian feuding. “There’s still a tendency to see these things in Sunni-Shia terms,” Ms. Rice said. “But the Middle East is going to have to overcome that.” It is all well and good for the US to preach ecumenicism, but by asking the KSA to ratchet up Sunni fears of Shiism, it is doing the exact opposite. The late grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abd-al-Aziz ibn Abd-Allah ibn Baaz, called Arab nationalism an alien and atheist creed that should have no place in the land of Islam. The neocons insist the War on Terror is at heart a war of ideas. By throwing US weight behind the KSA, Washington is promoting the wrong ideas.
Supporting Saudi Arabian propaganda would be acceptable if the Kingdom were taking concrete measures to reform. But it is not. Central to US demands that Saudi Arabia distance itself from the more objectionable extremes of its Wahhabi ideology, has been the request that the KSA reform its Islamic school curriculum. The monarchy has held numerous conferences on curriculum reform because Saudi school books preach jihad, takfir, and instruct Muslims not to shake the hands of Christians and other kufar lest they be dragged down to hell by emotional proximity to unbelievers. The outcome of these curriculum conferences is invariably the same. Saudi Imams reject the notion that the curriculum advocates anything dangerous or un-Islamic. Reforms are not agreed upon and results are always "inconclusive" and "inoperative." The Saudis are not changing their spots. Enlisting intolerant Sunni Islam in the war against Iran and Shiite extremism is exactly what the US should not be doing. Surely this strategy will come back to bite the West, as it did in Afghanistan.
But let us look more closely at Saudi interests to see how closely they dovetail with US interests.
Saudi and Palestine
On Palestine, Saudi interests differ from those of the US. The US offered Saudi progress on the Palestinian front in exchange for closer Saudi support in isolating Syria and tackling Iran. Most likely, Saudi authorities told Washington that in order to align more closely with US foreign policy in the region, which would surely alienate their people, they would have to be able to alleviate Palestinian suffering and find a way to take the Palestinian Authority off the "diet" that Israel and the US imposed on it following Hamas' electoral victory last year.
This is how we got to the Mecca deal. Saudi Arabia has no interest in knocking out Hamas, but it does need to provide a happy PLO veil for Hamas in order to reopen the spigot of international funding for the Territories. Having pictures on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya of Palestinians suffering and cannibalizing each other as they slowly starved like rats is not tolerable for the KSA if it is to embrace US policy in the region.
Pro-Israeli interests in the US are insisting that Saudi Arabia deal a real blow to Hamas authority rather than merely cobble together a coalition government for Palestine that would lift a convenient PLO veil over Hamas power. Saudi Arabia has failed to do this in its Mecca deal.
This is why the Washington Post writes that the Saudis have actually complicated Secretary of State Rice's task in visiting the Middle East, rather than assisting her. Here are Rice's words:
"Our position toward the Hamas government was very clear: It did not meet the international test," Rice told a group of newspaper reporters on the eve of her departure. "I have to say that we have not yet seen any evidence that this one will."
Rice added, "I don't deny that it's more complicated" now and that before the announcement of the unity government "it was clear, more black and white."
The problem is that Hamas has agreed to "respect [not accept] international resolutions," but not international demands that the new government pledge to "recognize" Israel, renounce violence, and abide by previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. Hamas officials later told reporters that the movement has no intention of ever recognizing Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ended discussion on the issue Saturday by declaring that the unity government deal "did not satisfy the demands of the international community," and President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert agreed to shun the Palestinian unity government unless it meets international conditions.
David Makovsky of WINEP sums up what he calls "the less benign interpretation" of Saudi goals. He writes:
what is driving Saudi Arabia is sectarianism, not pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. Under this view, Riyadh has no problem supporting Hamas's program, so long as it is a Sunni organization and can keep Iranian money and influence at bay.
Therefore, it would be useful for the United States to explore Saudi objectives and strategies. Moreover, for a political horizon to succeed, one needs to consider whether Riyadh and Cairo are willing to do something that they were not willing to do in 2000 at the time of Camp David (July) and the Clinton parameters (December). Namely, they need to provide the requisite political cover for Abbas to compromise. If they do not, they need to know that unlike 2000 they will be politically exposed for failing to do their share. In short, if the Bush administration is really serious about a political horizon, it needs to have a dialogue not just with Israelis and Palestinians but also with America's Arab friends to discern the depth of their commitment to peacemaking in a very specific way.
The Mecca experience suggests that not everyone is on the same page.
Mohammad Yaghi, a Palestinian fellow at WINEP and writer for the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam, explains in his article: "Hamas's Victory: From Gaza to Mecca," that Hamas was the winner in the Mecca deal because it bested PLO forces on the ground in recent fighting and was able to translate that advantage into the terms of the Mecca deal, which retains the prime-ministership for Haniyyah and most cabinet positions for Hamas. The PLO panicked and gave away the store, Yaghi writes.
As it stands, the agreement spells significant gains for Hamas politically, institutionally, bureaucratically, and in its relations with the Arab world. It is likely that Abbas and Hamas together will still attempt to use the Mecca accord as a means of alleviating the Quartet's sanctions by claiming the government has accepted its conditions — even if Hamas as a party retains its core political ideology.
The Mecca accord will not end the struggle between Fatah and Hamas to dominate the Palestinian political system, but it does represent an effort to gain a respite from the violence by dividing the PA according to each faction's current position on the ground.
King Abdullah has promised the PA one billion dollars for their new alliance. Rice must make sure it is not received. The US is going back to the drawing board. Underneath the squabbling, the problem is that the US wants to starve Hamas and force the PA to accept much less than the 1967 borders. The KSA wants to feed Palestinians and get them more land than Israel will offer. So much for the Zionist-Wahhabi alliance on matters Palestinian. The dream of the Israelis is that the mutual Israeli-Saudi fear of Iran can be used to turn the KSA into a hammer against Palestinian demands for land. This will not work unless Israel can put a promising deal on the table, something it refuses to do. So long as the US resists pressuring Israel to uphold international law on the 1967 borders, Saudi Arabia will resist falling in line with Israeli plans.
Syria and the Mecca Deal
The Lebanese neocons don't give a fig about Palestine. What excites them is that Saudi Arabia is doing battle with Syria, or so they insist. They argue that because the Palestinian deal was penned in Mecca and not Damascus, Saudi Arabia has stolen the Palestine card from Damascus. But claim is misguided.
From all reports, the Mecca deal was worked out in Damascus, where Palestinian representatives met to hash out the terms of their new proposed coalition government. The proof of this was made clear when various Palestinian heads thanked Damascus for its help in arriving at the settlement. Al-Hayat reporters have covered the Saudi-Syrian cooperation on the Mecca deal in some depth. They write that the deal was struck in Damascus and announced in Mecca, where the Saudis put up the money that cemented the compact. Far from excluding Syria, the KSA worked with Damascus to broker the deal. In the following quote Muhammad Shuqair محمد شقير of al-Hayat writes that Syria pressured Khalid Mashaal to participate in the meetings and prepared the way for "rebuilding trust between the Saudi leadership and Syria. He also indicates that Syria and Saudi Arabia are quietly cooperating for a Lebanon deal.
يف ان دمشق شجعت رئيس المكتب السياسي لحركة المقاومة الاسلامية «حماس» خالد مشعل على حضور الاجتماع الفلسطيني – الفلسطيني لتمهيد الطريق امام استعادة ثقة القيادة السعودية بالقيادة السورية، لكنها بالنسبة الى لبنان لا تستطيع ان تتعامل بالمثل ما لم تحصل على شيء ما يعيد لها الاعتبار في الخريطة العربية ومن خلال المجتمع الدولي.
وترى المصادر نفسها ايضاً ان دمشق تسعى من خلال إمساكها بالورقة اللبنانية الى تقديم أوراق اعتمادها الى المجتمع الدولي من خلال استعدادها للتعاون مع السعودية ومن ثم ايران لتسوية الازمة في لبنان، مشيرة الى انها لن تتخلى عن هذه الورقة من دون مقابل.
Lebanon and Syria
Many Lebanese government figures claim that Hizbullah wants to carry out a "coup" against the Lebanese state but has failed, thanks to stalwart western support. Hizbullah, however, insists that far from wanting to overthrow the government or change Lebanon's consociational form of government, it merely wants better representation for the opposition, commensurate with its numbers. Mohammed Ben Jelloun writes that Hizbullah has this to say:
By demanding a national unity government and a veto power over major decisions, Hezbollah and its allies are sticking to the consociational (multi-confessional) letter and the republican (patriotic) spirit of the Lebanese constitution.
Hariri Turns down the rhetoric
In my last post, I wrote that the February 14 coalition turned up the anti-Syrian rhetoric on the second anniversary of their leader's assassination. But a source that I respect in Damascus wrote me a few days ago that I was mistaken. He explained:
Saad Hariri did not mention Syria at all. Quite possibly, the Saudis have warned him to be careful as they are working with Iranians to cool things down in Lebanon. What Janbulat and Geaga said was expected. They do not want any solution for the crisis. They have much to lose from a deal to solve the crisis.
On the 17th of February, Ibrahim Hamidi of Al-Hayat wrote that the Syrians are confident Iran is not planning to diverge too much from the Syrian positions on Lebanon and Iraq. Although they admit to some differences with Iran, such as:
1) On Iraq: Syria wants a consensus that includes the Sunnis and the more neutral baathists, Iran is more interested in helping its Shia allies.
2) Lebanon: Iran is more willing than Syria to compromise on Lebanon. Out of all regional conflicts, Syria is probably most concerned with Lebanon.
3) On Palestine there is almost no disagreement.
For those who believed that Iran and Syria could be so easily divided by Saudi Arabia without offering real concessions, Asad's trip to Tehran this weekend should put such speculation to rest. The news was about how Assad and Ahmadinejad vowed to form a stronger alliance against the U.S. and Israel.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said that expansion of Tehran-Damascus ties would help resolve the problems of the Islamic world. He accused the U.S. of trying to attract public opinion within the Islamic world by undermining Iran-Syria relations.
The Syrian leader said Muslims worldwide should be informed about “the evil aims by the U.S. and Zionists” which he said were sowing discord among Muslims.
Sami Moubayed, a smart Syrian analyst, claims that Syria believes it is holding its own quite well against US pressures. Here is what Sami writes of Asad's meeting with Khomenei:
Syrian President Bashar Al Assad went to Tehran last Saturday for a much publicised meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His two-day visit received a lot of media attention, coming in the midst of Saudi-Iranian talks over Lebanon, the situation in Palestine and much speculation on how Syria can help combat the insurgency in Iraq.
By all accounts, Syria's allies seem to be winning throughout the region. In Palestine, despite all the thunder, Hamas has been called in to form another government with Esmail Haniya as prime minister. This is a victory for Syria. Its allies in Iraq, headed by President Jalal Talabani, are putting great effort in normalising relations between Baghdad and Damascus. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah is still struggling to bring down the anti-Syrian cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. They have not won in Lebanon, but they certainly are not losing. The situation in each of these three countries is linked, one way or another, to the Syrian-Iranian alliance. If anything, Bashar's visit to Tehran is further proof that to the great displeasure of the United States, this relationship is intact.
Russia has announced an arms deal for Syria, which will be financed by Iran.
Syria and Saudi Arabia
So what does this mean for Saudi-Syrian relations? Although many Lebanese journalists and neocons somehow convinced themselves that Saudi Arabia would work to isolate Syria on Washington's behalf, the opposite seems to be the case. There is no doubt that Saudi-Syrian relations have been terrible since Hariri was killed. Lebanon is a big plumb, and both states would like to have preeminence there. Syria can no longer call the shots in Lebanon, as it once did. But it does insist on having a voice, and through Hizbullah and Aoun has the muscle to paralyze Lebanon. Saudi Arabia knows it is pointless to try to eliminate Syrian influence in Lebanon. It has tried and failed. The stand-off in Lebanon between the pro-American and pro-Saudi Lebanese government and the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian opposition cannot be solved without compromise. Lebanon will run out of money. Oxford business group argues that the Lebanese deficit is so large that it will eat up the 7.5 billion dollars of foreign donations recently promised to Lebanon in a matter of two to three years. The KSA understands that without a political solution and economic growth, Lebanon may not be able to avoid a hard economic crash. To resist Syria altogether will be to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Neither country is interested in that. Lebanon is too important.
Bahia Mardini writing for Elaph claims that the Saudi monarch is sending a delegation to Damascus to smooth out relations with Asad. King Abdullah wants Asad to come to the Arab League meeting in March and wants to repair relations, strained since the Hariri killing. What is more, Mardini claims that Saudi sources argue that their diplomacy with Iran favors Syria and does not threaten it. Today's Elaph also says that that Salim al-Hoss has traveled to both the KSA and Damascus recently. He will travel to Tehran next week in an attempt to find a solution to the Lebanon crisis. Salim al-Hoss has traditionally been Damascus' choice for PM of Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia is playing a positive role in trying to bring unity to the Palestinians and Lebanon. It is doing this, not by following Washington's policy of confrontation and isolation, but through the sort of intensive diplomacy that President Bush and his team refuse to engage in. In effect, Washington is farming out its diplomacy. In matters of high politics, this may turn out to be a good thing, at least in the short term. All the same, as we have seen with the Palestinian unity government, Washington has refused to recognize or give its blessing to the diplomatic solutions that Saudi Arabian has so far arrived at. If Saudi Arabia can broker a Lebanon compromise by giving the opposition a larger role in the cabinet, will Washington agree to the Saudi brokered terms? There will be many in the White House and in Beirut who will try to torpedo it. Maybe that is the best diplomats in Washington can do at the moment? Better to have some diplomacy rather than none. All the same, the President of the United States should have the vision to carry out his own diplomacy.
Those who expect Saudi Arabia to isolate Syria and Iran, will be deceived, just as they have been let down by Saudi's Palestine deal. Saudi Arabia has a mind and interests of its own. Its interests are not to follow blindly President Bush's interests.
In a perverse sense, Washington is using the KSA to do what the Baker-Hamilton report recommended: get Iraq's neighbors together to discuss solutions to regional problems. Hopefully Washington will not spurn the results.