Fearful of Iran's influence, Saudi king reaches out to Syria

Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has switched from a policy of isolation toward engagement. Some hope the warming could bolster US Middle East peace efforts.

Scott Nelson/AP
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah greets guests at the opening of a university of science and technology in his name on Sept. 23.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia arrived here Wednesday to mend fences with Syria and strengthen regional cooperation in a move that some hope could advance President Barack Obama's Middle East peace plans.

The two day visit by the king – his first since he took power in 2005 – will focus on unrest in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, where political rivals backed by the two countries are wrangling over power. The Saudi monarch and close US ally is also seeking to nudge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of Iran's diplomatic orbit toward closer cooperation with fellow Arab states.

The visit is the latest sign of a thaw in relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, which went into deep freeze after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Mr. Hariri was a close friend of the king's family, and Saudi Arabia and many others believe that Syria ordered his murder, a charge Damascus has denied.

"The trip is very significant, given the negative mood that has prevailed in Syrian-Saudi relations over the last couple of years," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, who argues that the visit could bring peace closer between Israel and its Arab neighbors. "This is very positive news for the region."

The Syrians have laid on a lavish welcome for Abdullah, whose delegation has commandeered two of Damascus's largest hotels, in a manner that is reflective of the dramatic improvement in ties with the region's political and economic powerhouse. "Today… the Saudi king in the heart of Arabism," screamed Wednesday's morning Al-Watan newspaper, a Syrian daily, devoting its whole front page to the visit.

Stunning turnaround

After the Hariri assassination, always fragile Arab unity appeared to come apart at the seams, with close US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt – nervous about Shiite Iran's growing regional influence – at odds with Syria, which formed a self-proclaimed resistance alliance with Iran to oppose Israel and provide support to the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. In 2008, things were so bad that an Arab League summit in Damascus was boycotted by the Saudi and Egyptian leaders.

But Syria's ties with the West have been warming of late, thanks to the efforts of President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Saudi Arabia has turned from a policy of isolation toward engagement. The Saudi and Syrian leaders met in Riyadh in March. Saudi Arabia restored its ambassador to Syria in August after an 18-month hiatus. And two weeks ago, Abdullah and Mr. Assad met in Jeddah. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the location of the leaders' March meeting.]

"There is an overall positive momentum in the region which kicked off with the exodus of George W. Bush," says Mr. Moubayed, crediting Obama's regional outreach for the more harmonious atmosphere.

On the two leaders' agenda will be Lebanon, where the Saudi-backed prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, continues to struggle to form a new government in the face of demands from the Syrian-backed opposition, and the ongoing Palestinian peace talks between the Syrian-backed Hamas movement and Fatah. Analysts say that a Syrian-Saudi accord on these issues would substantially increase chances of resolving them, while serving to strengthen Obama's desire to restart the Middle East peace process.

Washington watching

Washington will be watching closely, says Andrew Tabler from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, hoping the visit will mark the beginning of a new regional balance.

"The Abdullah visit is significant symbolically in that it opens the door for Damascus to move away from an increasingly isolated Iran toward Washington's Arab allies," he says. "All of this will just be a photo shoot, however, if it doesn't lead to progress on key issues, most notably the formation of a government in Lebanon and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah."

The extent of Syria's influence over Hamas is uncertain, and Syrian analysts caution against expecting too much from the trip.

One Damascus-based commentator, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, says divisions between the two sides remain deep. Moreover, he adds that without Egyptian participation there could be no real regional accord on key issues such as Palestine.

While there has been some talk that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak might join the Damascus summit, Egyptian-Syrian relations are poor, and such an appearance is considered unlikely.

And some Syrian analysts say that warmer relations with Saudi Arabia and the West don't necessarily mean cooler ones with Tehran.

"Yes, the king is here, but the [Syrian] president was in Iran one month ago," says Moubayed. He argues that Iran's opponents should use Syria as gateway to the Iranian state, rather than seeking to break the relationship.

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