A three-handed game in the Middle East
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS – The Middle East is witnessing a fury of diplomatic traffic. On Monday evening, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz only days after receiving Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Damascus.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri had arrived in the Saudi capital a day earlier, while US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman landed in Beirut for talks with President Michel Suleiman, days after a state visit by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon.
Ex-US president Jimmy Carter wrapped up talks in Gaza and headed to Damascus where, along with a senior delegation from the Elders, he met members of Hamas on Tuesday while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is expected in the Syrian capital on Wednesday. All of these talks revolve around three main topics: the cabinet crisis in Iraq, a stalemate of the Isreal-Palestine peace process, and the snowballing political crisis in Lebanon.
In Beirut, all parties are trying to shelter the country from slipping into chaos when and if the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) names members of Hezbollah in the 2005 murder of ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri.
Syria and Hezbollah insist that given its track record, the STL has proven to lack the slightest form of impartiality, and must be done away with for any progress to be made in Lebanon. It is a politicized “Israeli project” says Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, that targets the arms, legacy, and future of the Lebanese resistance.
If such an indictment comes out of the STL, the Hezbollah-led opposition has threatened to take drastic action ranging from taking the streets of Beirut, as it did back in 2006-2008, to bringing down the entire Harriri cabinet.
This summer, Saudi Arabia tried to avert a collision in Lebanon by pushing for postponement of the STL verdicts. The Syrians argued otherwise, calling for complete cancellation of the STL and for a serious approach to the false witnesses who lied under oath and distorted investigations in the Harriri affair.
The Saudis insist that under no circumstances should Lebanon slip into chaos and are calling on Hariri to do what it takes to ensure that. They originally talked him into okaying all of Hezbollah’s requests in 2009, which included the empowering of their allies in government, giving them veto power, and granting the Telecommunications Ministry to someone trusted by Hezbollah.
Although refraining from interfering in Lebanese affairs at a micro-level, the Saudis have made it clear however that Hariri needs to solve his problems with Hezbollah if he plans to stay in power and prevent the country from slipping into war.
Hariri’s choice of the popular Saudi daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat, to publicly exonerate Syria for his father’s murder, speaks volumes about what Saudi Arabia wants from Lebanon. Not only that, but Saudi Arabia made sure that Hariri’s allies toned down their criticism of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Beirut last week and participated, rank-and-file, in giving him a warm welcome.
This explains why men like ex-president Amin Gemayel and ex-warlord Samir Geagea both showed up at Beirut InternationalAirport to greet their Iranian guest. The Ahmadinejad visit to Lebanon, after all, only took place after a phone call between the Iranian president and the king of Saudi Arabia.
On Iraq, contrary to what is being said in the Western press, Syrian-Saudi relations are at their zenith. At one point, Syria and Saudi Arabia indeed showed strong support for the secular prime minister-hopeful, Iyad Allawi, who heads a 91-seat parliamentary majority that includes plenty of Sunnis.
Now, seven months after the March elections, both Riyadh and Damascus realize that regardless of how many seats he commands, Allawi simply cannot become the next premier. That realization, it must be noted, does not mean that Syrian-Saudi relations are spiraling downwards. Additionally, many read too much into the Syrian rapprochement with Maliki, also arguing that this was straining Syrian-Saudi relations since Riyadh continues to not trust or like the Iraqi premier.
That also is a mistake, because what matters to the Saudis is full empowerment of Iraqi Sunnis and an Iraqi prime minister who will treat them fairly – be it Maliki or anybody else. True they would have preferred to have Allawi, but if Maliki is forced into accommodating Sunni demands, issuing a general amnesty for members of the Sunni community, granting them more posts in the cabinet, and disarming militias, then Saudi Arabia is willing to deal with the prime minister, just as it did when he came to power in 2006.
The latest Syrian-Saudi summit, therefore, briefed King Abdullah about progress on cabinet formation, as expressed by Maliki during his last visit to Damascus. Maliki, much like Hariri in Lebanon, has realized what it takes to stay in power – mainly appeasement of the Syrians and the Saudis.
Syrian-Saudi-Iranian coordination is high – meaning that if the two countries approve a particular formula, it passes with a green light in Tehran thanks to equally good Syrian-Iranian relations. At no point since the 1990s has coordination between the three capitals been so high.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.