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Arab Détente?

March 14, 2009

Earlier this week the Syrian President met in Riyadh with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad of Kuwait.  The Saudi owned al-Hayat paper portrayed the meeting as a continuation of King Abdullah’s January 20 overture toward Syria at the Kuwait summit.  According to the closing statement, this week’s Riyadh meeting “represents a beginning for a new statge in the relations.  All four states will strive to manage Arab issues with cooperation, serious work, and communication amongst themselves for the benefit of Arab states.  And agree on a united course for Arab policies in confronting the essential issues that the Arab community faces.”

This latest meeting represents a deepening of the thaw in relations between the moderate and resistance poles of the Arab world that began last January following the Kuwait summit in the wake of the Gaza conflict.

Both the Saudis and the Syrians have an interest in seeing a relatively smooth next few months.  All parties seem to desire a successful Arab League summit March 30 in Doha, rather than a repeat of last March’s summit in Damascus which was boycotted by the moderate axis.  For the Saudis/Egyptians there is a desire to see the Cairo brokered talks on a National Unity government bear fruit.  Meanwhile, they would also like to see the Lebanese Parliamentary elections play out smoothly, as March 14 has a strong chance of holding a simple majority (particularly if it cooperates with the independent Christian list).   For the Syrians, it is likely that the Obama administration’s willingness to “engage” in some fashion plays a role in this quieting of its saber rattling with other Arab states.  The Syrians want the US to return its ambassador and directly involve themselves with Syrian-Israeli peace talks.  Even Hassan Nasrallah is expected to support the Arab reconciliation.

However, by this logic, if the Obama administration is reticent to fulfill Syrian demands then it is unlikely that the thaw will prove long lasting.  Feltman’s visit and Clinton’s remarks do not suggest a major shift in US policy, but rather a reiteration of many of the Bush administration demands such as an end to support for Hezbollah and distancing itself from Iran.  The “common ground” that Feltman found with Syria was not on either of the key issues.  It remains to be seen if Obama will hold out for a shift in Syrian behavior before bestowing carrots or take the Sarkozy approach and make concessions ex ante with little quid pro quo in the end.  The Syrians must, for the time being, continue to exert their influence within the region and that means leaning on proxies in Lebanon and Hamas to act against the proxies in the Saudi, Egyptian, American fold.  This does not bode well for a long term Arab detente.

As Syrian Political and Media Adviser to the President Butheina Shaban’s remarks suggest, Syria is not currently reconsidering its relationship with Iran- though Syrian-Iranian relations were a major topic at the Riyadh summit.  Likewise, Syrian Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash recently affirmed, “nobody is able to influence the [Syrian-Iranian] relations.”

Meanwhile, the apparent reconciliation is for the Egyptians, Saudis, and Americans, chiefly a means to draw Syria away from the Persians.  It is not yet clear what a satisfactory recalibration of the Syrian-Iranian relationship would entail specifically or how it would come about.  Perhaps it could come in the context of a return of the Golan, but this is problematic.  Assuming Syria genuinely is seeking a peace settlement and not only rapprochement with Washington, they are unlikely to alter Iranian ties ex ante and would only conceivably do so as the Golan (or part of it) is returned in a comprehensive framework.  Peace negotiations under the future Likud led Israeli government will move slowly and the nature of Israeli concessions will largely be determined by the composition of Netanyahu’s coalition.  The immediacy of the Iranian threat and the roughly 1-2 timetable that the US, Israelis, Sunni Arab states, etc. have before Iran’s nukes are weaponized means that Syria, if it can be “flipped” at all, may not be willing to realign itself in time to be of any real use.

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Iran, Arab Summit, and Sy Hersh
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