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 Hurria said...

You know, Badger, it never ceases to amaze me the way nearly everyone, including a few people whom I respect, and a hell of a lot of people for whom I have zero or less respect, sees the "solution" to the Iraq situation as involving everyone in the world - except the Iraqis. It is as if the Iraqis are some kind of incompetent children who cannot be expected to participate in any meaningful way in determining their own fate. So, according to Mr Fandy the solution to Iraq comes from some ultra-complicated thingie involving Iran, Syria, Israel, and the U.S., with no actual participation by Iraqis? What an oddly oblique and utterly absurd way to try to solve Iraqi problems.

You know, I am not an "expert" in political science and international relations, but I am someone who knows and understands Iraq and Iraqis very, very well from the inside out, and I am someone who has been trained in science and logic, and I am someone who has, from early childhood, had a very logical and practical type of mind. My logical, practical mind bolstered by my scientific training and my "Iraq sense" tells me that any solution for Iraq that is so bloody convoluted, complicated, and impractical, and that so utterly ignores Iraq and Iraqis is really not a solution at all, but an effort on the part of the proposer to impress others with his expertise and erudition. In other words, it is a load of bull****. I, for one, am not even a little bit impressed.

And by the way, at this point any "solution" that involves the Americans is a non-starter as far as I am concerned. They have less than zero credibility by now in terms of both ability and intent.

11:08 PM  
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 Hurria said...

Badger, don't even give it a thought. I certainly did not mean to imply that I think you agree with Fandy!!!! I was sure you did not, in fact. It is still interesting to read the convoluted nonsense that gets passed off as erudite thinking. It is amazing to see what some people who presumably have normal minds are able to come up with.

By the way, do you read As`ad Abu Khalil's blog at He does a good job of making fun of all kinds of stupidity that is presented as credible.

11:10 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  
Blogger Hurria said...

"any "solution" that involves the USA should not involve iraqis..."

Well, one of the striking features of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" from the beginning has been the systematic way in which Iraqis have been barred from any sort of meaningful role in either decision making or implementation. Even the rewriting of the school curricula and textbooks was done under the direction (aka dictates) of mostly non-Arab, non-Arabic speaking Americans who had no knowledge of Iraqi history or culture, or what was good and what needed improvement in the education system. I suppose the only reason they involved any Iraqis at all was that they needed some people who knew Arabic.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Hurria said...

PS The main function of the American "education reformers" in Iraq was to do things like expunge from the history books whole swaths of critical Iraqi history - like anything to do with Saddam - particularly anything that might depict anything positive the the Ba`th regime did for the country or the people - and there was plenty positive in the first decade or two - and anything that might portray the U.S. in a negative way (like the massive, systematic destruction of 1991, the sanctions, etc.). They also insisted that any and all Qur'anic and other religious references be removed from textbooks and instruction, which is absurd in a culture in which religious expressions, and references to God are imbedded in the culture so much that they are a part of everyday speech used by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yezidis, and atheists alike. Further, you simply cannot teach Arabic language without using passages from the Qur'an and religious proverbs because the Qur'an is 1) so much a part of the Arabic language, and 2) is considered the epitome of perfection in Arabic.

That is what happens, of course, when an ignorant and uncaring power tries to deconstruct and transform a country to suit its own purpose.

Oh yes - and heavy duty resistance is also what happens if that country happens to be Iraq.

10:23 AM  

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