Monday, October 23, 2006

The view from Riyadh: It should be possible to fit the pieces together

It's Monday already, and time to check in with Maamoun Fandy, former senior fellow at the Baker Institute, confidant of Saudi King Abdullah, and currently weekly columnist with Asharq al Awsat. Today's column (Monday October 23) helps us understand how an influential Saudi see the current regional crises.

As always, the analysis starts from the threat of Iranian influence in the Arab world. In current circumstances, most of that influence and that threat is exercised through Syria, so the aim is to try and wean Syria away from Iran. That much has been said many times before, but here is where the discussion gets interesting.

First: The former Syrian regime of Assad the father also had a relationship with Iran, but in that case Syria was able to use Iran. In the current regime of Assad the son, the relationship is reversed, and Iran is using Syria as a tool. Next: On the question of what could entice the Syrian regime away from Iran, the answer is the return of the Golan Heights. To get the Golan Heights back, you need to negotiate with Israel, and that means getting Washington to pressure Israel to do that. So the question becomes: What would Washington want in exchange, and the answer is clear: Stability in Iraq. Summarizing the argument up to there, Fandy says the old formula was "land for peace", but Arab regimes have to understand that this has changed, and the formula is now "stability in Iraq for peace".

So what does "stability in Iraq" involve? The way Fandy sees it, this is primarily a matter of solving the Shiite question, and that from two standpoints, the religious and the political. With respect to religion, he says the aim should be to move the locus of ultimate Shiite authority from Qom to Najaf (he doesn't say how tht is supposed to be done). And politically he says this involves the Arab regimes recognizing a role for the Shiites in Iraq, but this would also involve "dealing with the Shiite issue" elsewhere in the Gulf region.

This reader would have liked Fandy to elaborate on these points about solving the Shiite issue, so that this wouldn't sound quite so glib, but instead me moves back to his macro anti-Iran argument. He asks: Even accomplishing this (he means weaning Syria away from Iran via all of this circuitous route), would the result be stability in the region? Only, he answers, if it was also possible to "neutralize" the Iranian influence on groups like Lebanese Hizbullah, Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and others. For this to happen, again, Syria is the key. And thus the solution of the main equation is this: Exchange of Golan Heights for neutralizing Iranian influence on these groups. (Depending however on the other equation: trading Iraq stability for US pressure on Israel). In other words, Syria would have to show itself capable of playing a role that would involve "swapping Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad for the Golan Heights".

Easier said than done! Fandy recognizes it would be an awful risk for Syria to make concessions based on something as uncertain as US pressure on Israel re the Golan. Arab regimes could help in the process, especially the rich ones, with what he calls "economic bribery". But there is an even more important possibility, and that is Arab regime intervention in the extremely complicated Syria-Lebanon question to assure Syria of a return to its rightful historical importance in Lebanese affairs, as the closest of the Arab regimes to Lebanon, and the best-situated to help fend off Lebanese civil war. So that Syria, having left Lebanon via the door of UN Resolution 1559, would be able to return via the window of Arab cooperation.

A side-benefit of this approach would be the possibility of Arab pressure on Washington to let the Syrian question revert from being an "international" one (referring to the current focus on the Hariri investigation) to being an Arab one, for resultion via the Arab League or any other Arab mechanism.

Putting the two "scenarios" side by side (meaning return of the Golan Heights, or return to Lebanon), Fandy says the first would be by far the preferable one, adding it might not be as difficult as it looks, when you consider that even some in Israel recognize that the Golan Heights don't have nearly the strategic importance that was ascribed to them in 1967, (partly a reflection of new longer-range rocket technology). The "return to Lebanon" scenario--and he stresses he doesn't mean a military return, or a return of the Syrian mukhabarat--has more drawbacks, not least that it would upset a lot of Lebanese.

Fandy concludes: Given the Arab aim of bringing Syria back into the Arab fold, and the parallel American aim of weaning Syria away from Iran, there are really only two main options for getting Syria to do this: Golan or Lebanon. "If we exclude, that is, the alternative of confrontation!"


Blogger badger said...

Hurria, I would be mortified if you thought I agreed with a single word of what Fandy says. It is just as you say. The only reason I post this kind of thing is that I figure maybe there are Western readers who would find it interesting to see how the Saudi establishment sees the world. But you're right: It makes no real difference.

8:35 AM  
Blogger badger said...

I saw it a bit from time to time, but since you mentioned it I went over there to catch up, and he's funnier than ever. "My past connections with the North Korean Government" is a classic! And where else would I be able to learn who Hajj Isma'il is ? I'm going to have to read that every day.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hurria, you point out that the USA has less than zero credibility. I'm not any great expert on iraq, but I would guess that nowhere is US credibility more negative than among iraqis.

So it makes sense that any "solution" that involves the USA should not involve iraqis but should be something that is somehow imposed on iraqis entirely beyond their control. Otherwise such a proposal would have no chance of "success".

1:12 PM  

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