Damascus Summit and the Test of Rising Above Arab Inertia

Abdel Wahab Badrakhan: Damascus Summit and the Test of Rising Above Arab Inertia

  • 29 December 2009

The visit of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, to Syria has formalized rapprochement between the two countries and has helped in overcoming differences for the benefit of bilateral relations that can develop in the political, economic and security spheres. Saudi Arabia intends to develop close relations with Syria as well as Egypt. However, Egypt still has reservations over Syrian foreign policies that it finds as closely linked to Iranian policies and objectives. Egypt continues to harbor serious concerns over Tehran’s interference in most Arab affairs, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as in Sudan and Somalia.

Saudi–Syrian differences had grown gradually since 2004, when Damascus was engaged in security cooperation with Riyadh to restrict a wave of Saudi extremists from entering Syria, to later crossover into Iraq to conduct terrorist operations and suicide attacks in that country. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Saudi–Syrian differences entered a critical phase because the assassination severed the Saudi–Syrian bond that sponsored Lebanese national reconciliation. Following the Israeli war on Lebanon in July 2006 and the subsequent internal Lebanese crisis, the division between the ‘moderate camp’ (with Saudi Arabia as the head), and the ‘resistance axis’ (led by Syria) escalated. This division was quite apparent during the Arab summit hosted by Damascus in March 2008, and blew up in the wake of Israeli aggression on Gaza (from December 2008 to January 2009).

The truth is that the Saudi monarch was the first to extend the hand of friendship and dialogue with his speech at the Arab economic summit in Kuwait on January 2009. This was followed by his meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad on the sidelines of the summit and the visit by the latter to Riyadh in September 2009. In addition, Saudi Arabia has made efforts to get closer to Egypt at the Arab summit in Doha in March 2009. The communications continued at different levels between the two countries. Due to this closeness, Lebanese elections were said to have passed without any major problems. The subsequent difficulties in government- formation in Lebanon have also been attributed to growing frigidity in relations between the two countries over the last three months. It is believed that a thaw in relations could remove the obstacles hindering the formation of a new government in Lebanon, headed by Saad Hariri.

However, Saudi-Syrian differences on Lebanon run deep and are not limited to the issue of government-formation. Saudi Arabia has a serious problem with the growing Iranian role and the dangerous ties it has developed in the Arab world with the help and support of Syrians. Saudi Arabia, even if it is in complete agreement with Syrians, cannot approve of Iran’s open and unfettered influence in Lebanon.

For this reason, it is expected that the Saudi-Syrian agreement on Lebanon will be limited to their commitment to defuse the impact of their differences on this file on their relationship. They would both commit to the idea that a stable Lebanon, even in relative terms, is good for both sides. It is not clear if this commitment also encompasses the possible impact of the forthcoming ruling by the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination, or whether this issue will be dealt later, at a more appropriate time. In addition, there is ambiguity over a common position from both countries over the issue of ‘resistance weapons’ that have placed Lebanon in a difficult quandary and under a perpetual danger of an imminent war between Hezbollah and Israel. There is nothing in the statements released by both parties after the summit to indicate that they are actually in the process of reaching a ‘strategic agreement’ on Lebanon, similar to the one reached between Tehran and Damascus.

Although Saudis and Syrians state that they have discussed both Palestinian and Iraqi scenarios, what they have announced are little more than clichéd pronouncements. On these two issues, Syria remains in complete sync with Iranian policies and objectives. As for Saudi Arabia, it is content with a limited and measured contribution and presently does not seem to have any appetite for greater involvement. It supports Palestinian efforts for holding reconciliation and wants to see a positive Syrian contribution. The Kingdom also wants stability in Iraq and a fair political status for Sunnis. However, the increasing Iranian role in the country—despite US occupation—has not left space for a positive and effective Arab role.

Perhaps, this situation has forced Saudis to try to bridge differences between Syria and Egypt to activate the traditional Arab tripartite alliance that could be active in playing roles that complement each other. However, Riyadh is confronted with the reality that its former partners are not as they once used to be. They have hardened their positions and each is working on a tack that is opposed to the other. Syria seems to have made its choices and has shown its readiness, even flexibility, in dealing with different crises facing the region. On the other hand, Egypt seems to be preoccupied by its own internal problems, which have started to sap its diplomatic vitality. New developments and directions have started taking shape on the horizon, with the United States moving closer toward an agreement with Iran, and to a new formula for regional influences that take into consideration the interests of Iran, Turkey and Israel at the same time. In light of this situation, Arabs should position themselves in a manner that secures their interests and also against those forces that do not cause divisions among them.

Since they started coming closer, Syria has tried to convince Saudi Arabia to accept its ties with Iran. Many informed sources disclose that President Assad explained to King Abdullah during their meeting in Riyadh after the Kuwait reconciliation, the reasons and motives for Syrian cooperation with Iran. He pointed out that Iran could be a useful ally and friend to Arabs and that it was willing to do that. As for the other camp, the view and expectations from the Saudi–Syrian rapprochement was to draw Damascus away from Tehran and to bring it back into the Arab fold. Perhaps, this contradiction in positions has affected the desired extent of the rapprochement, as each side has been interested only in explaining its position to overcome the differences and to continue holding dialogue. This has taken place amidst US-Syria dialogue and more contacts between Syria and several European countries. For this reason, Saudi–Egyptian sides have waited to see the results of such deliberations that began at a fast clip last spring.

Probably, Americans and Europeans have reached a consensus that separating Syria from Iran is difficult. Even if Syria shows readiness, the concerned parties cannot meet their obligations toward it to compensate for the loss of its ally—Iran. For this reason, the priority is again focused on Iran. The strategy is to resume negotiations with Iran, then to exploit its internal problems, followed by the worst possible threats, and finally alluring it with a flexible method and seriousness to cooperate with it. If Tehran realizes that it has an interest in responding to these international signs, it would enter into fresh negotiations (which actually started in early October) with new ideas and suggestions. It is true that nothing can yet be gauged about the negotiations tack. However, possibilities of an agreement have risen with the confirmation of US desire to reach a diplomatic solution over the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Perhaps this development, which has been studied by Damascus and Riyadh, made the Saudi-Syria summit inevitable, especially after the failure of the Obama administration to stop Israel from continuing the building of colonies in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which has consequently led to the collapse of the Obama plan to revive the peace process. It seems that the Damascus summit mooted ideas over the possibility of establishing a regional bloc—including Iran, Turkey and Syria as well as any Arab country that desires to join it. It is obvious that the formation of this bloc is still a project under study by Turkey and Syria, and could make some progress during the visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan to Tehran soon. In fact, the idea of a bloc means that Syria does not see any benefit from or effectiveness in the Arab bloc represented by the Arabic League. However, Saudi Arabia is not greatly enthused by the idea of a new bloc, but it will not object to studying the international response to it, and would decide if it is interested in joining it at a later date. What is important is that international negotiations with Iran would decide the fate of this new project. In case, negotiations continued to make progress then this bloc could form the framework or system through which Iranian influence will be filtered.

Undoubtedly, the state of inertia in the Arab system underscores the need for more effort and thought along with the need for discussion and monitoring of international and regional variables. If the Damascus summit has reached this strategic stage in discussions, we could soon see a serious effort toward attracting Egypt into the fold to rid the Arab world of the stagnation that has gripped the Arab system for a long time.