Thaw in Syria-Saudi relations could ease tension in the Middle East

By Zeina Karam, AP
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Better Syria-Saudi ties could ease Mideast tension

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Saudi king’s first visit to Syria that ended Thursday marked a crucial turning point in relations as Damascus is emerging from years of isolation — a process that could ease tensions between the pro- and anti-American camps in the Middle East.

King Abdullah’s two-day visit comes as the U.S. and its European allies have also stepped up diplomatic engagement with Syria in the hope of peeling the country away from its alliance with Iran and convincing it to end its support of anti-Israeli militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East would also like to pull Syria away from Iran because they are wary of the rising influence of the Shiite Persian nation in the region. Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country but has migrated closer to Iran in response to conflict with the West.

A key factor in the strained relations with both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been alleged Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a close Saudi ally who was killed in a truck bombing in Beirut.

Syria has denied any responsibility, but relations with both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia plummeted after Hariri’s death. Although the case, which is being investigated by a U.N. tribunal, remains unsolved, ties have recently begun to improve.

Abdullah’s visit is the first by a Saudi ruler since the assassination, which occurred only a few months before he became king. It follows three meetings with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the last two years.

President Barack Obama recently announced plans to return an ambassador to Syria, filling a post that has been vacant since Washington recalled its envoy in response to Hariri’s death.

“The U.S. is now engaging Syria in a sustained way, relations with Europe are improving,” said Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “What was lacking from a Syrian perspective was an Arab cover, which is precisely what this (Abdullah’s) visit provides.”

“What we’re seeing now is really an end to the anomaly which developed during the Bush administration whereby Syria was embedded within an axis rather than at the intersection of different players,” said the Syria-based analyst.

Syria, however, still faces hurdles in changing its image.

“The Syrian regime is far from being out of the woods just yet when it comes to shedding its pariah status,” said an editorial in the Lebanese English-language Daily Star. “The country still faces multiple allegations of sponsoring terrorism, particularly in neighboring Iraq.”

The international community also faces serious challenges in attempting to alter Syria’s behavior. Damascus has not given any real indication it would abandon Iran or its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, a move that would be unpopular in a country where anti-Israel sentiment runs high.

But Syria has signaled that it is willing to use its influence to help the West.

Syria helped convince Iran to release a French researcher and an embassy employee on bail in August who are on trial with more than 100 others for allegedly attempting to mount a “soft” revolution after Iran’s disputed presidential election. Syria has also hinted it could mediate between Iran and the West over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

In exchange for greater cooperation, Syria could demand that the U.S. drop the strong trade and financial sanctions that it has levied against the country. Even more important is Syria’s demand that Israel return the disputed Golan Heights in exchange for a peace deal — something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is not willing to do.

Harling, the International Crisis Group analyst, said Saudi Arabia also has something to gain from reaching out to Syria: the reestablishment of its image as a regional leader. The kingdom was closely allied with the Bush administration at a time when it was reviled in the Arab world for its regional policies and perceived bias toward Israel.

Syria’s president called Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” over their disapproval of Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July 2006 — a move that sparked a deadly 34-day war between the Lebanon-based group and Israel.

Syria also criticized Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries for not being more critical of Israel for its January offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. About 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the three-week operation, which aimed to stop rocket fire into Israel. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

“A turning point was the Israeli war on Gaza, which caused great embarrassment to the Saudi regime,” said Harling. “We’ve seen the king reasserting himself since and putting his own house in order.”

But Harling warned against overestimating how much of a difference reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia would make in a region that remains fundamentally unstable.

“This is just one move in a big game,” he said.

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