x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Quartet's chances for Syria peace may be bleak

Negotiations between quartet of heavyweight Middle East powers formed to end Syria’s civil war appear doomed to failure after Saudi Arabia fails to show up.

As an attempt by an Islamic quartet to negotiate peace in Syria began with Saudi Arabia failing to show up, Syrians, like this distraught family outside an Aleppo hospital, continue to suffer.
As an attempt by an Islamic quartet to negotiate peace in Syria began with Saudi Arabia failing to show up, Syrians, like this distraught family outside an Aleppo hospital, continue to suffer.

The "Islamic quartet" of heavyweight Middle East powers formed to end Syria's civil war is doomed to failure, analysts said yesterday after Saudi Arabia stayed away from the first meeting in Cairo.

It was an inauspicious start for an unlikely grouping that brings together three staunch supporters of the Syrian rebellion - Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - along with Iran, which has a strong interest in the survival of president Bashar Al Assad's regime, Tehran's main regional ally.

"It's difficult to see what the quartet can do given the degree to which the violence in Syria has gone into a spiral," said Gerald Butt, a British-based author of books on the Middle East. "Diplomacy has been tried without success from the UN to the Arab League. Both Assad and the Syrian opposition are determined to see this war through to the bitter end."

At the Cairo meeting on Monday night, Iran proposed the quartet send observers to Syria to try to quell the violence; a call that has so far been met with silence.

"There's no way they're going to get observers in, not just because of the logistics but because there will be opposition to it on other fronts," said Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England.

The US says Iran cannot be involved in a solution to the Syrian crisis as it is part of the problem. The UN last month put an end to its own six-month observer mission in Syria amid continuing violence.

The quartet was the initiative of Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who is determined to forge a more balanced foreign policy, independent of western agendas.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the Al Quds Al-Arabi daily newspaper, based in London, said Mr Morsi had undermined his own diplomatic drive by repeatedly calling for Mr Al Assad's removal.

"A mediator should not take such a strong line … this ended his [Morsi's] initiative when it was just an embryo," Mr Atwan said.

Western diplomats have been sceptical that the quartet can reach any tangible deal on defusing the crisis, citing visceral distrust between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

But independent analysts said the quartet's main problem was rivalry for leadership of the Islamic world between Saudi Arabia and a newly assertive Egypt.

"The Saudis never welcomed this quartet committee because it was always a competition for leadership between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as between Turkey and Iran," Mr Atwan said. "You have four Muslim nations competing for leadership of the Muslim world."

Egyptian officials gave different reasons for the absence of Saudi's foreign minister, prince Saud Al Faisal, from the quartet meeting.

Some said he had stayed away for health reasons, others that he had prior engagements.

But there was no explanation from Cairo or Riyadh as to why Saudi Arabia had not sent another official in his place.

Putting a brave face on the diplomatic setback, Egypt said the contact group had agreed to meet in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week.

Some analysts say Egypt has little confidence in the potency of the quartet it created but is using the initiative to reassert its position as a regional powerbroker.

Likewise, Iran relishes its role in the quartet as a public relations coup, a means to demonstrate it has an indispensable say in regional security, despite efforts by Washington to isolate it over its nuclear programme and support for Mr Al Assad.

Cairo is trying to persuade Iran to drop its unquestioned support of Mr Assad in exchange for help in easing Tehran's regional isolation.

Egypt is said to have offered a full restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran and smoothing a reconciliation between Tehran and wealthy Arabian Gulf nations.

This would be a significant prize for Iran, which is under mounting diplomatic and sanctions pressure over its nuclear programme.

But hardliners in Iran's fractious regime vowed this week that Tehran would never sell out Syria.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae