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    Middle East
     Sep 22, 2012


The mystery of the Syria contact group
By Vijay Prashad

In late August, Egypt's new president Mohammed Morsi proposed the formation of a regional initiative to stem the conflict in Syria. Five decades ago, Egypt and Syria were yoked together to form the United Arab Republic, an experiment that lasted less than three years. Since then relations between the two states has ebbed and flowed, reliant more on the winds of mutual opportunity

 
than on ambition or ideology. Nasser's enormous personality had overshadowed all those who came after him and the failure of the Syrian-Iraqi union on Ba'ath lines reined in the ideologues.

When Mubarak cemented Egypt's place in the Western ledger, the distance from the generally Soviet-leaning Syria of Hafez al-Assad could not have been greater. That Morsi comes from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood does not earn him favors amongst the Syrian Ba'ath, whose fight against the Brothers goes back to before the Ikhwan's attack on the Aleppo cadet school in 1979. The brutal assault by the Assad regime on the Brothers from Hama (1982) to the present must weigh on Morsi. Nonetheless, Morsi has brought Syria a gift that it cannot refuse on its face: the first chance of a non-Western backed "intervention" to save the country from absolute destruction.

To ease the Assad regime, Morsi asked Iran's government to take one of the four chairs of his Syria Contact Group. Iran remains close to Damascus for geo-strategic (and perhaps confessional) reasons. There is credible evidence that Iran's aircraft have been flying over a willing Iraq to supply the isolated Assad government (whether with arms or not is yet to be established).

When the Arab Spring was in high gear, Iran sought to take advantage of it for its own political gain. Tehran's intellectuals dubbed the Spring an "Islamic Awakening" and sought to link it to a dynamic opened up by the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iran and Egypt broke relations over the Israel-Egypt peace deal in 1979, and links have only recently begun to be fixed. Tehran is eager to impress Egypt with its diplomatic flexibility, as long as this does not mean that it sells its few remaining allies down the river. There is considerable motivation in Iran to break out of its own strangulation by the West through new ententes with the Arab states.

The other regional actor that sought to take the measure of the Arab Spring and claim it to its advantage was the old imperial power, Turkey. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hastened to Cairo and proposed his Justice and Development Party as an adequate model for a modern political Islam, and their hadari version of Islam as a modern religious sensibility (as opposed to salafi Islam, exported out of the Arabian peninsula). Turkey backed the rebellion in Syria as part of its forward policy, but in time this has come to be seen by sections of the Ankara political elite to have been a grave overreach.

The precipitous Balkanization of Syria might produce a Syrian Kurdistan beside the already autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. A new front by the Turkish military against its Kurdish population in Semdinli showed the price that could be paid for Erdogan's support for the rebellion. The implications of Erdogan's policy has come on Turkey's shoulders, with disarray in the army at the same time as US President Obama has asked Turkey to "do more" (the catchphrase from Washington to its old CENTRO allies, Pakistan on one side, Turkey on another). Morsi's Contact Group provides Erdogan's government with an escape hatch from its excessive commitments. It takes the third seat on the Contact Group.

Saudi Arabia is the most eager backer of a section of the Syrian rebels. Keen to keep rebellion out of the peninsula, the Saudis are enthusiastic about the export of that rebellious energy to shores far and wide. This was the motivation for the creation of the Rabita al-Alam al-Islami (World Muslim League) in 1962, and of the substantial bursary paid to jihadis from Chechnya to Afghanistan.

When Morsi asked the Saudi Arabia to sign up to the Contact Group, it had little choice but to join and take the fourth seat. A credible source from the website Jadaliyya tells me that the Saudi Arabia and the Iranians "struck a deal" at the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting held in Mecca this August when the Contact Group idea was mooted. "The Saudis would drop its steroidal support of the Syrian opposition in return for the Iranians convincing Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province Shias to tone down their opposition against al-Saud, if not altogether stopping their protests, threats and demands," the source says.

A source from the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs would neither affirm nor deny this story, but would say that "it is a likely tale. There were discussions between the two parties about a 'cease fire' in the eastern part." If the Saudi Arabia joined the Contact Group, these sources say, it is more likely because they were able to get something in return to help them deal with levels of unrest inside the Kingdom that they had neither predicted nor know exactly what to do with absent the use of massive force. Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr told al-Jazeera's Rawya Rageh that he "sensed no exasperation from the Saudis over Iran's participation in the Contact Group."

Contact in Cairo
This week, foreign ministers from Egypt, Iran and Turkey met in Cairo to formulate a plan for the Contact Group. Nothing was made public, because the principals have agreed to have private talks until they settle on a firm plan. No sense in raising expectations when there has been little accomplished. The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, "The things that we agree on are greater than our differences." What they agree on is the need for a regional solution, or as the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu put it, there is a need for "regional ownership of the issues of our region."

One of the tasks of the Contact Group is to provide the new UN envoy, the Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi with a mandate and a roadmap. Brahimi came to Cairo from his meeting with Assad in Damascus. He immediately met the Arab League's head, Nabil al-Arabi and sat in with the Contact Group. During his stop off in Amman, Jordan, Brahimi told al-Jazeera's Jane Arraf that he was not optimistic, "The point I'm making as seriously, as strongly as I can is that the situation is very bad and worsening. It's not improving. Syrians on both sides say from time to time we are going to win very soon."

These maximum positions have collapsed the space for dialogue. Brahimi knows that it will require oxygen from outside to allow the Syrian opponents to breathe, and to then talk to one another. He cannot do this alone. The West and Russia are convulsed in their own Cold War interpretation of events in Syria; nothing will come from Washington or Moscow to help the Algerian veteran. This is why it was important that Brahimi came to the Contact Group's meeting.

Salehi left Cairo for Damascus, where erroneous press reports suggesting that he was carrying a nine-point plan from the Contact Group. In fact, the Contact Group has no such plan. What Salehi was carrying was the Iranian proposal to the Group (which includes at least one non-starter, the addition of Iraq and Venezuela to Morsi's delicate balancing act). The nine points include the need for Contact Group countries to send observers into Syria to replace the now departed UN observers, to end all arms delivery into Syria, to maintain a cease fire, and to create confidence toward some kind of mediated settlement which will include (it appears) the departure of Assad from the presidency. The Iranians have not released their 9 points, so the actual details of the plan are not known.

Where was Prince Abdulaziz?
One reason this could not have been the Contact Group's plan is that the Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister was not present in Cairo. Initially, the press was told that he had other "previous engagements," and then later the message came that Prince Saud bin Faisal al-Saud (the world's longest serving Foreign Minister) is unwell. He is apparently in hospital in Los Angeles, USA. At previous events, such as the NAM Conference in Tehran and the GCC meeting in Jeddah in August, the Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz has taken his place. Even Prince Abdulaziz did not come.

Two US-based academics, close observers of Saudi politics, tell me that the Saudi Arabia is trying to send a signal that they are not interested in this process after all. Princeton's Professor Toby Craig Jones (author of Desert Kingdom. How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, 2010) says, "They don't trust Tehran and have likely reserved judgment on Cairo for now." Vermont's Professor Gregory Gause (author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, 2010) says, "Saudis think that their side is winning and they don't want to give the Iranians a seat at this table. They want to beat the Iranians in Syria."

The University of London's Professor Madawi al-Rasheed (author of Kingdom without Borders: Saudi Arabia's Political, Religious and Media Frontiers, 2009) agrees, "[Saudi Arabia] sends an important signal that it will continue to play the game in Syria according to its own terms, meaning total exclusion of Iran from the Arab sphere." Professor al-Rasheed is pessimistic for the success of the Contact Group. " Saudi Arabia has a interest in the conflict continuing as this is currently absorbing Islamist revolutionary zeal inside Saudi Arabia, promoting the myth about the Iranian penetration of Arab land and the Shia conspiracy against Sunni Muslims. Without these foci, Saudi Arabia may end up suppressing a local uprising that has the potential to spread beyond the Shia Eastern province."

It appears that the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia is driven by its obsessions with its oil-rich eastern provinces. Either it has cut a deal with the Iranians for a quid pro quo on Syria and the eastern provinces of its kingdom, or it wants to keep the Syrian bloodletting going as a tourniquet for its own internal hemorrhaging. Either way, Saudi Arabia seems the least serious about the Contact Group and its potential.

As Turkey's Davutoglu put it, "Consultations with Saudi Arabia are necessary because the kingdom is a key player in the attempt to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis." If the key player skips more meetings, it will dampen confidence in the Group and therefore in Brahimi for a regional solution to the Syrian crisis.

The Contact Group will meet again at the sidelines of the UN's General Assembly next week. The Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry will not confirm that its representatives will be at the Group's meeting. The Egyptians, Iranians and Turks are enthusiastic. So is Brahimi. The road to peace in Syria might go through the Contact Group. But it requires Saudi Arabia involvement to make it credible.

Vijay Prashad's latest book is Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press), whose Turkish edition, Arap Bahari, Libya Kisi is available from Yordam Kitap.

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