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Why Syria and Saudi Arabia are talking again

It's about Iran, Iraq, and Israel. The two foes planned to meet in Riyadh Wednesday to solidify Arab unity amid regional volatility.

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However, a return to traditional diplomacy by the Obama administration appears to have encouraged Saudi Arabia to bridge the rift with Syria. At an economic summit in Kuwait in January, King Abdullah invited the Syrian and Egyptian leaders to a lunch at his private residence. That ice-breaker was followed by reciprocal visits by the Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers that paved the way for the Riyadh summit.

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"I do think that one of the reasons Saudi Arabia wanted to patch up with Damascus is that it realized that there was no sense in pursuing a policy that had repeatedly failed since 2006, being on bad terms with Damascus," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.

Even Egypt appears to have swallowed its anger at Syria, recognizing that Damascus has influence over the Palestinian unity talks under way in Cairo.

"Egypt knows very well that for the Cairo dialogue to succeed it will need the goodwill of Syria," says Ousama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Last week, Jeffrey Feltman, acting US assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, a National Security Council official, met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem in Damascus, the first visit to Syria by senior US officials in four years. Mr. Feltman described the meeting as "constructive," suggesting it could pave the way for further talks.

Whether the overtures will lure Syria from Iran's orbit remains to be seen. Syria has employed a fence-straddling strategy to deflect international pressure. It held indirect talks with Israel last year and helped broker an end to the political impasse in Lebanon, yet it continues to support Hamas and Hezbollah and has tightened military cooperation with Iran.

"Syria is exploiting the [international] paranoia over Iran very cleverly," says a Western diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Syria broke off the indirect negotiations with Israel in response to the Gaza war. But Mr. Assad has said he is willing to resume talks even with a right-wing Likud party-led government.

Reuters reported Wednesday that a Likud politician met Syrian diplomats in the US "and felt encouraged about peace prospects."

But Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to be Israel's next prime minister, has indicated he would prefer to concentrate on the Palestinian track.

Still, if the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement bears fruit, it could signal an easing of tensions in Lebanon before June polls – elections in which neither the Saudi and Western-backed parliamentary majority nor the Syrian-supported opposition are assured of victory.

"Elections in Lebanon are always decided by 11th hour deals [between rival factions] and if the Syrian-Saudi rapprochement continues it will impact positively on any 11th hour coalitions that are made," says Bassel Salloukh, assistant professor of politics at the Lebanese American University.

Syrian-Saudi reconciliation also could facilitate a stable transition in Iraq when the US withdraw troops. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran will be vying to exert greater influence there. "Someone has to fill that vacuum," says Mr. Moubayed. "Saudi Arabia has an ambition and so does Iran. Syria stands in the middle."

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