Saturday, August 18, 2007

The potential meaning of the Syria-Saudi deterioration

Syrian vice-president Farouq al-Sharaa made a speech last week in which he described as "paralyzed" Saudi Arabia's Arab and Islamic role in the region, and a Saudi spokesman replied by accusing the Assad regime of fostering instability by saying things like that. (Summary of the initial exchange in English here). Al-Quds al-Arabi says this morning that a counterattack by the leader of the committee on Arab affairs in the Syrian parliament indicates the deterioration in the relationship has now gotten to a point where it can't easily be patched up. (The Syrian parliamentarian described Syria as the reference-point for Arab nationalism in the whole region, something intolerable to Saudi self-esteem). And the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar notes that Egypt has joined in on the side of Saudi Arabia, launching its own package of criticisms and insults directed at the Assad regime (for instance, saying Bashar al-Assad has wasted the political heritage of his father).

The Syria-Saudi relationship is not only going to be an important factor in Lebanon. The relationship of Syria with the US, (reflected in this relationship with Saudi and the "axis of moderates") could also affect the stability of the Maliki regime versus the resistance in Iraq. Those seeing Assad as cooperative with Maliki cite participation in meetings that helped legitimate the Maliki administration, and reports that Syria scuttled the recent "Damascus Conference" of resistance factions. There is an interesting collection of different views in the comment section of a recent post at called "Sharaa statement of Syria's foreign policy".

In any event, this apparent collapse in the Syria-Saudi relationship will be an important part of the background when Maliki meets with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in a meeting scheduled for Monday.

But there are a couple of readings of the current Syria-Saudi war of words that haven't been much commented on: (1) The view of expressed by Abdulbari Atwan in his op-ed of Thursday, in which he linked the initial Sharaa speech with the warning that had just been made by Hizbullah chief Nasrullah, to the effect that Hizbullah had "surprises" in store in the event Israel were to launch a war. Atwan suggested the Syrian regime was warning that it was now at the end of its patience with a policy of attempted conciliation with the US and its regional allies, and that it too would have surprises in store. While the Assad regime, with its cold-war-era media techniques would be no match for the US-allied group in a war of words, Atwan said, the Syrian Mukhabarat, by contrast, was very well qualified in the area of direct destabilizing action against its neighbors. (2) In the lead editorial today, Al-Quds al-Arabi calls attention to the the escalating nature of what is so far still a war of words, this time from the Saudi side. The editorialist writes:
The real source of concern lies in the possibility that this war of words could develop into a bloody confrontations in areas of competition and struggle, for instance in Lebanon, but also in Syria and Saudi Arabia themselves, particularly since now the two sides in Lebanon have joined in a round of mutual insults and accusations.
The editorialist refers in particular to TV interview remarks by the editor in chief of the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, and a former adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, in which this member of the Saudi media and policy elite
...intimated that perhaps the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would not permit the continuation of the current vacuum in the Syrian government, and he espoused the hypothesis of replacing the current regime, and supporting the forces of [Syrian] opposition.
This Al-Watan editor isn't a current office-holder, but the Al-Quds editorialist says he is enough of a figure in the policy establishment to make a remark of this type a cause for real concern.

If the hypothesis of a dangerous hardening between Syria and the US-clients in the region proves out, then this could have implications in the question of Syria's stance vis-a-vis the Iraqi resistance.


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