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.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Unity? Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (l.) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (r.) talked to Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh Wednesday.
Ola al Rifai/AP
A picture of Syrian president Bashar Assad was seen attached to the rear window of a car in Damscus, Syria, on Wednesday. On Wednesday, Mr. Assad met with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia's steps to end its bitter dispute with Syria appear to be aimed at unifying Arabs against a trio of growing concerns: Iran's spreading influence in the region, the uncertainties of a US drawdown in Iraq, and the prospect of a right-wing government in Israel.

Saudi outreach follows Washington's tentative reengagement with Damascus, a move that diplomats hope will have more success in weaning Syria away from its Iranian ally than the Bush administration's policy of isolation.

"The Saudis want to get Syria away from Iran," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Washington's style is to try engagement as well, so the Arabs are trying their best to get Syria on board."

After a month of shuttle diplomacy, Saudi King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah will meet for a fence-mending summit in Riyadh Wednesday.

The rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia followed the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese former prime minister who was close to the kingdom's ruling family. The Syrian regime remains a leading suspect in the assassination, although it denies involvement.

The Bush administration, angered by Syrian meddling in Iraq and support for anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, imposed sanctions and froze ties with Damascus in 2005. In response, Syria strengthened its relationship with Iran and sat out President Bush's final term.

The result: an Arab world split between Western-backed Sunni states (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and allies of Shiite Iran (Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Palestinian Hamas).

Relations between Egypt and Syria have also been cold, the result of tension between Cairo and Tehran. In December, Mr. Mubarak reportedly criticized Iran's expanding influence, saying: "The Persians are trying to swallow up the Arab states."

Arab fears of Iranian expansionism were compounded by recent unrest by Shiites in the Gulf. In December and January, Shiites rioted in Bahrain following the arrest of several Shiites on terrorism charges. In January, Saudi Shiites launched rare demonstrations after an altercation between police and Shiite worshippers in Medina.

The unrest does not appear to have been stirred by Iran, but does serve to warn Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that marginalized Shiites could provide an opening for Iranian penetration.

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.

"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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