President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been hard at work since the summer to bring Israel and Syria to the negotiating table, a goal which stands above and beyond the direct Israeli-Palestinians talks which collapsed this week. This is part of a US master plan, devised with Saudi Arabia, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly has tracked since its onset with a map illustrating Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's offer of a substantial pullback from the Golan.
(See issue 450 of June 25: Netanyahu Ready to Cede Most of Golan to Syria, with map, and issue 455 of June 30: New US-Saudi Strategy for the Middle East – Assad Offered High Status in Beirut and Baghdad).
The plan entails an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan in two stages in response to the steps required from Damascus.
In stage one, Syria would distance itself, though not effect a complete cutoff, from Hizballah. President Bashar Assad would be rewarded with Syria's restoration to the position of political and military influence in Beirut which it enjoyed prior to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, of which Syria was widely suspected.
In stage two, Syria would wind down its political and military bond with Iran, a process which the US and Saudi planners see as occurring inevitably as the talks between Israel and Syria register progress. At this point, Assad would get the second part of his reward: influence in Baghdad.
The first sticking point tackled was the Hariri Tribunal
Just 10 days ago, on September 16, US Middle East special envoy George Mitchell called on the Syrian president at his residence in Damascus for a serious, detailed discussion of the possibilities the US-Saudi plan opened before him.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, Mitchell tackled the first sticking-point in the path of the plan, the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon which has focused its investigation into the Hariri murder on suspects from high Hizballah ranks.
The US envoy said his government would do what it can to persuade Saudi King Abdullah to use his influence with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for getting the summons to Hizballah leaders withdrawn in accordance with the US-Saudi-Syrian approach to the investigation into his father's murder. All three believed that hauling these suspects before the court would result in Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah making good on his threat of civil war.
The king went along with this step. When his son, Prince Abdel Aziz bin Abdullah, who has been put in charge of Saudi Arabia's Middle East policy, visited Beirut in the third week of September, he pointedly avoided calling on the prime minister, clearly signally to Hariri that he risked Riyadh's displeasure if he persisted in letting the tribunal go through with its probe.
But the Grand Middle East Plan was meanwhile overtaken by events. And by Monday, Sept. 27, when Hillary Clinton received Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallam at her office in the State Department, they were forced to address the wild cards which had attacked four of its larger pieces and the new shape emerging.
The master plan is attacked by wild cards
1. The direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians had fallen apart.
2. Saad Hariri was relegated to a back seat as the Lebanese problem by Hassan Nasrallah stepping into the driving seat without waiting for action by the Hariri tribunal. On Sept. 18, his special forces seized control of Beirut's international airport for several hours, a show of strength which told the Lebanese prime minister that Hizballah could overthrow the government in Beirut by a military coup at any given moment, without the US, Syria or even Israel being able to do anything about it.
3. An unforeseen situation developed in Baghdad, an arena as important as Beirut for US-Saudi-Syrian diplomacy and of even greater interest to the Obama administration.
It arose from Syrian meddling in the effort to bring together the leaders of Iraq's three main political camps, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iyad Allawi and his Al Iraqiya, the largest party in the Iraqi parliament, and the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who is the strongest man on the Shiite Iraqi street today and who operates out of Tehran.
For the first time in recent Middle East history, the United States and Iran agreed on a key issue, namely that Al-Maliki, the outgoing prime minister, should stay in power in Baghdad. But that did not end Iraq's political crisis. As in Beirut, the initiative was snatched out of their hands by a local strongman.
Moqtada al-Sadr, who is a close ally of Lebanon's Nasrallah, told visitors from Al Maliki's faction who called on him this week that their leader would become prime minister only over his dead body and the bodies of his militiamen.
And the second rival for power, Iyad Allawi, assured his Saudi bankers and long-time US intelligence sponsors that he would make it his business to personally prevent any pro-Iranian prime minister from officiating in Baghdad.
Mubarak backs out
4. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak backed off from supporting Obama's Middle East strategy.
Mubarak stood with Barack Obama at the ceremonial inauguration of direct Israel-Palestinian talks at the White House on September 2. Then, on Sept. 14, he hosted the US Secretary of State, the Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for another ceremony marking the resumption of peace talks.
But privately, he told his close circle: "I don't like what the Americans are doing now in the Middle East," he said and suited actions to words.
Before leaving Washington, he sent his intelligence minister, Gen. Omar Suleiman, to rendezvous with Hamas General Secretary Khaled Meshaal in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on the pretext of the Hajj.
They concluded a set of deals for improving relations between Cairo and Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip Those deals led quickly to reconciliation talks in Damascus between Abbas' Fatah and Hamas and a hardening of the Palestinian leader's line in talks with Israel.
Mubarak indicated to Assad that if he backed the Fatah-Hamas peace track, he could expect steps for burying the hatchet between Cairo and Damascus quite soon.
Washington therefore found the Israel-Palestinian negotiations caught unawares by the overnight emergence of a new Egyptian-Syrian-Fatah-Hamas track popping up and threatening to swamp Obama's Middle East plans.
In these circumstances, the Palestinian leader Abbas had no choice but to go back to the Arab League for fresh endorsement before deciding whether or not to pursue his talks with the Israeli prime minister.