|Syria, Saudi Arabia plot peace path
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - The visit of Saudi King Abdullah to Syria, his first since assuming
the throne in 2005, is being hailed as groundbreaking and historic by Middle
Abdullah, who is married into a Syrian family, visited Damascus countless times
for decades, in private and for work, when serving as crown prince under his
brother, King Fahd. He attended president Hafez al-Assad's funeral in June
2000, and was the first Arab leader to visit Syria after President Bashar
al-Assad came to power in July that summer.
Relations remained strong throughout 2000-2005, when Syria fully backed the
Abdullah plan for peace, later renamed the Arab Initiative, but soured with the
assassination of Lebanon's former
prime minister Rafik Hariri, a long-time friend of the Saudis, in 2005.
Ties hit rock bottom when the Saudis were critical of Hezbollah during the 2006
Israeli war on Lebanon, and eventually led to the withdrawal of the Saudi
ambassador to Syria in 2008. Although Lebanon was the source of tension between
Syria and Saudi Arabia, both sides stress today that it is not the reason for
Syria and Saudi Arabia mended fences over a summit on Gaza in January 2009.
Symbolically, the rapprochement took place on the last day of United States
president George W Bush's term at the White House. Since then, Assad has
visited Saudi Arabia once, to confer with King Abdullah and Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak, and his Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem went to Riyadh ahead
of the parliamentary elections in Beirut in June.
The two sides decided to work for smooth and democratic elections in Lebanon,
which took place and led to the victory of Saudi Arabia's proxy, the March 14
Coalition. Syria supported the election results, although it did not produce a
majority for the Syria-backed Hezbollah-led opposition and has repeatedly said
that it is willing to work with prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, a friend
of the Saudis, despite his loud and aggressive anti-Syrian stance in 2005-2008.
Positive confidence-building gestures quickly followed. The anti-Syrian
campaign in major Saudi media came to a halt, a Saudi ambassador returned to
Syria and Syria reopened the offices of the popular Saudi daily al-Hayat in
Damascus, after they were closed during the low point in bilateral relations in
Last week, ahead of the king's visit to Syria, Syria named a new ambassador to
Riyadh, former information minister Mehdi Dakhlallah. In late September, Assad
went to Saudi Arabia to attend the launch of the King Abdullah University of
Science and Technology, a multi-billion dollar co-ed institute of higher
education, perceived as a personal achievement for the Saudi king.
King Abdullah was due to arrive in Syria on Wednesday with his ministers of
intelligence, labor and information for a three-day stay that will take him to
the northern city of Aleppo, and for Friday prayers at the Grand Umayyad Mosque
The Damascus agenda of the king will include a basket of issues related to
bilateral relations, the situation in the Palestinian territories and relations
with Iraq. On bilateral relations, the countries will discuss political and
economic development, as well as counter-terrorism operations to combat the
influence of groups like al-Qaeda, which is a mutual threat to both countries.
Both are keen to bring about a rapprochement between Hamas in Gaza, which is
backed by Syria, and Fatah, which is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia. More
importantly, the Saudis are backing Syria in its current feud with Iraqi Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki. They believe Syria had nothing to do with the six
attacks that ripped through Baghdad on August 19 that killed 100 Iraqis,
although the Iraqi government claims the masterminds were Iraqi Ba'athists
based in Damascus.
Saudi Arabia is not too fond of Maliki, seeing him as a sectarian leader who
has worked hard at promoting Iranian influence in Iraq at the expense of Saudi
Arabia. He has refused to mend fences with Iraqi Sunnis, making no effort to
bring them back into power after they walked out on him in 2007, and done
nothing about Shi'ite militias in Iraq, striking at the Sunni community in
revenge for having produced former president Saddam Hussein.
They are fearful that some in Maliki's entourage are still toying with the
explosive option of creating an autonomous district for Shi'ites in southern
Iraq, similar to the Kurdish region in the north. If that happens, Iraqi
Sunnis, who have traditionally fallen under the umbrella of Syria and Saudi
Arabia, would be left in central Iraq, where there is no oil.
Both Syria and Saudi Arabia are eyeing the situation closely in Iraq, fearing
that if Maliki gets the upper hand in parliamentary elections in January, Iraq
will slip into more sectarianism, violence and chaos - three elements that
could dangerously spill over the border into neighboring Syria and Saudi
The more Maliki escalates tension with Damascus - as he has done by taking the
August 19 case to the United Nations - the more this brings the Syrians and the
Saudis closer. The countries have similar visions for the future of Iraq, once
the Americans leave in 2012, and both can fill the vacuum that is expected to
They have cooperated in the past, during the Iraqi provincial elections in
January, and as a result, the Sunnis who had shunned the post-2003 system in
Iraq came out and voted in large numbers, demanding political representation
that is rightfully theirs. If the scene is repeated in the January elections,
this could spell political defeat for Maliki.
Clearly from the policies of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is no longer interested in
breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance. On the contrary, much like US President
Barack Obama, it sees it as a godsend, hoping that Syria can help moderate
Iranian behavior in the Arab neighborhood.
Syria is a reasonable, secular and moderate country, which has no history of
radicalization against either Saudi Arabia or the United States (with the
notable exception of the Bush era). By distancing themselves from Syria in
2005-2008, the Saudis only strengthened the Syrian-Iranian alliance, at the
expense of Syrian-Saudi relations. That immediately backfired on Saudi
interests in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon.
Far from breaking it, Saudi Arabia wants to invest in the Tehran-Damascus
alliance, similar to the situation when most of the Arab world sided with Iraq
in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the Saudis insisted that Syria remained
allied to Iran. Syria had the ear of Iranian decision-makers, and the Saudis
were keen that this channel with Tehran remained open during the 1980s.
Given its political and economic weight, the Syrians are proud of a friendship
with Saudi Arabia, which dates to the inter-war years of the 20th century. In
the 1920s, scores of Syrian businessmen, doctors and administrators went to
Riyadh - long before oil was struck - to help King Abdul Aziz found the modern
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
When the nationalist leader Shukri al-Quwatli came to power in 1943, he enjoyed
excellent relations with King Abdul Aziz, and the Saudi monarch used his
considerable influence in the West to build bridges between him and British
prime minister Winston Churchill, so that Syria could get British help to end
the hated French Mandate. He even tried to arrange for a meeting between
Quwatli and US president Franklin Roosevelt.
The two countries went to the founding conference of the United Nations in San
Francisco together, coordinating foreign policy on Arab affairs, especially the
situation in Palestine in 1945-1948. They co-founded an army of Arab warriors,
known as the Army of Deliverance, to fight the British and the Zionists in
Palestine shortly before the official entry of Arab armies into war, as a
result of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Saudis bankrolled the army and the Syrians provided it with men, leadership
and political cover. In 1973, the Saudis rushed to the aid of Syria and Egypt,
famously launching their oil embargo to pressure the US to cease its support
for Israel during the second Arab-Israeli war, known as the October War. They
hammered out an end to the Lebanese civil war in Taif in 1989, and joined
forces to eject Saddam from Kuwait in 1991.
With such a history on the shoulders of Riyadh and Damascus, it is no wonder
that they are insisting that Syrian-Saudi relations cannot - or should not - be
seen from the narrow prism of Lebanese politics. Although many Lebanese
politicians are optimistic that the Saudi king's visit will speed up the
formation of a cabinet in Lebanon, which has been lagging since June, the
Syrians insist that Syrian-Saudi relations cannot be "dwarfed" by the situation
in Lebanon, They claim that they are more macro and strategic, related to Arab
and international affairs at large.
Iraq, for example, is more of a priority for both countries today than Lebanon
and so is the situation in Jerusalem, where fighting is escalating between
Palestinians and the Israeli Defense Forces. The Saudi king's visit comes only
days after a senior meeting failed to solve pending problems between Obama,
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas in New York.
The improvement in relations between Syria and the US, after Obama came to
power, certainly had an effect on relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia. If
the Americans were now talking again to the Syrians, it was only logical for
the Saudis to do so as well - illogical in fact, for them to do otherwise.
After five years of UN investigations, there is no evidence that Syria had
anything to do with the 2005 murder of Hariri.
That is something well noted and appreciated by the Saudis. So is the fact that
Syria has unparalleled influence with non-state players like Hamas and
Hezbollah, and heavyweights like Iran, that can all come into play in mapping
out the future of the Middle East.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.
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