x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Saudis seek Syrian ties to thwart Iran

Saudi Arabia attempts to improve previously difficult diplomatic relations with Damascus as a way to thwart Iranian interference in Arab affairs.

Riyadh // Saudi Arabia has moved into high diplomatic gear to improve its previously difficult relations with Damascus as a way to thwart Iranian interference in Arab affairs. It was announced yesterday that the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, will arrive here today for talks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Working closely with the Egyptians, the Saudis will now be able to hold a presidential unity meeting here with the three leaders before the scheduled Arab League summit in Qatar at the end of the month. The tripartite session is part of a larger, co-ordinated Arab push to resolve glaring divisions that became apparent during Israel's 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip. This push is in large part a response to what Arab states regard as Iran's belligerent rhetoric, as well as its nuclear programme.

Although Iran denies it is trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, US and French officials have said recently they believe Iran is moving towards that goal. Tehran has created anxiety in the region recently by launching what it claimed to be a communications and research satellite - suggesting advances in its ballistic missile capabilities - and then by remarks from an Iranian official that Bahrain really is part of Iran.

Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, made his country's concerns very clear in a speech last week in Cairo when he urged Arab League representatives to get their house in order so they could meet what he called the "Iranian challenge". Arabs need to co-operate on "a unified and a joint vision", he said, to deal with Iran's behaviour in matters of "Arabian Gulf security and the nuclear issue".

Arab unity "is not just a matter of Iran", said Amal Sakr, a political science specialist working for the Dubai government. "There is also a need to unite against the very right-wing government which will be in Israel." (Benjamin Netanhayu, leader of Likud, a right-wing party, is the designated Israeli prime minister.) Making good on his words in Cairo, Prince Saud travelled to Damascus the next day and met with Mr Assad, extending an invitation to meet King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

Another spur to forging better Arab co-operation is the apprehension among some Arab officials that the US administration of Barack Obama is seeking a strategic understanding with Iran. However, US officials went out of their way during Hillary Clinton's visit to the Middle East to stress that Washington would closely consult its Arab allies as it pursues better relations with Tehran. Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general, made Arab concerns explicit last week. "I demand that no foreign [power] talks to Iran without Arabs being aware of it and having a role in the process."

In a policy analysis last week, the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre's Nicole Stracke wrote that Mrs Clinton's promises to Arab Gulf states about US intentions with Iran are "noteworthy" since it is the Obama administration's "first public assurance" on the matter despite demands for such by Gulf states "for some time now". "GCC states have legitimate and deep concerns about the conduct and objectives of US policy vis-à-vis Iran," Ms Stracke said. "Equally, they have genuine apprehensions about the US ability and willingness to handle the problem relating to Iran without undermining GCC interests."

Saudi Arabian moves towards renewed ties with Damascus "has everything to do with Iran", said F Gregory Gause, a Gulf affairs expert and professor of political science at the University of Vermont who is currently in Kuwait as a Fulbright scholar. The Saudis "are very focused on Iran and the fear of the spread of Iranian influence. I think they are willing to put aside their really hard feelings towards Bashar ? because they think they might be able to separate Syria and Iran a bit". Mr Gause said in an e-mail that "the Syrians are not going to completely change their foreign policy just to have better relations with Riyadh", and the Saudis "are not expecting a complete rupture".

Amal Sakr said King Abdullah "wants Syria to return to the normal triangle of Syria-Egypt-Saudi Arabia, which we used to see" in years past. Syria's return to the Arab fold, she said, will allow a more "solid" front against Iranian interference in the region. Relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia deteriorated after the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, who held Saudi citizenship. King Abdullah was angry at Mr Assad for not protecting Hariri. Senior Syrian officials are widely believed to have facilitated if not planned the assassination, a charge Syria denies.

Commenting on Prince Saud's Cairo speech, Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, told the Tehran Times: "We are surprised to see that our friends have moved away from realism." cmurphy@thenational.ae