Saudi rulers are engaged in a major bid to tear Damascus away from Tehran. It is a split-level operation: By coaxing Syrian president Bashar Assad to start loosening his strategic bonds with Iran, they also hope to downgrade Iran's standing in the region so that Tehran goes into talks with the Obama administration in a weaker position.
Riyadh is maneuvering to set the rules for Washington's dialogues with Damascus and Tehran.
The Saudis made their first serious move on Damascus at the Arab economic summit in Kuwait on Jan. 19. King Abdullah invited Assad to lunch at his hotel suite. When they were at table, the king phoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in another part of the hotel and asked him to join them.
DEBKA-net-Weekly's Gulf sources disclose that Abdullah then laid before the Syrian ruler an impressive array of benefits that would accrue if he played along with Riyadh – from American and Saudi financial assistance and investments in Syria to an end of Damascus's isolation in Europe, the United States and the Arab arena and recognition of Syria's special place in Lebanon.
Assad has been trying to climb back into Lebanon since he was thrown out by the May 2005 Security Council resolution.
The luncheon conversation did not produce the breakthrough the Saudi monarch hoped for – first, because Mubarak left before the meal was over in protest against Abdullah's generosity to the Syrian ruler and, second, because the congenitally suspicious Assad found that generosity fishy.
Saudi prince Moqrin perseveres
The Syrian ruler, unaware that the Saudi king was acting in conjunction with the Obama administration, reacted in typically sullen fashion. He decided to demonstrate he was not a pushover for the Saudi king's blandishments by ordering the Syrian delegation to vote against the Kuwait summit resolutions. This sabotaged the meeting since all Arab summit votes have to be unanimous.
Refusing to be discouraged, the chief architect of the Syrian venture, Saudi intelligence chief Prince Moqrin bin Abdul Aziz, began sending Saudi VIPs to Damascus in an uninterrupted stream to badger Syrian officials. Later, according to our intelligence sources, the exchanges were transmitted through more sensitive channels, handled on the Saudi side by Moqrin in person and the king's son, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah and, on the Syrian side, by Assad's close confidante and intelligence adviser, Gen. Muhammad Nasif.
Riyadh redoubled its largesse – and pressure – as the US congressional visit headed by Sen. John Kerry, head of the Senate's foreign relations committee, drew near this weekend.
On Feb. 14, Prince Abdul Aziz called on Assad; the next day, Prince Moqrin was on his doorstep, flying straight to Damascus from key talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
(See a separate item in this issue on the Saudi role in Afghanistan peacemaking.)
Ultimately, Riyadh's message boiled down to a harsh ultimatum for the Syrian president, the gist of which was this:
Saudi Arabia and Egypt now head the winning side of the Arab world after Hamas' defeat in Gaza at Israel's hands. If Assad stays with the losers, i.e. Iran, Hamas and its fellow Palestinian terrorist organizations, he will soon find how vulnerable and isolated he can be. But if he is ready to venture no more than half a step out of his strategic alliance with Iran, he will be surprised by how forthcoming Saudi Arabia can be in many arenas:
Fall in with Saudi strategy and the sky's the limit
1. Riyadh and Cairo will fully back Damascus' position in its dialogue with Washington .
2. They will be behind him all the way in any peace track with Israel;
3. Both powers will bankroll and endorse pro-Syrian candidates in elections taking place in Lebanon on May 7.
4. Damascus will profit from helping to cut down Hizballah's spreading power in Lebanon. The Saudi-Egyptian quid pro quo will be help to run pro-Syrian parliamentary candidates in constituencies hitherto outside Syrian spheres of influence. By this means, Hizballah will be thwarted of a majority and Damascus extend its foothold in Lebanon.
5. Riyadh and Cairo appealed to Damascus to instigate a coup in the Palestinian Hamas to oust the hard-line Khaled Meshaal. Syria's reward will be a role in determining tactics for the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.
(This ties in with a separate item in this issue on the joint Saudi-Egyptian diplomatic offensives in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian arena).
6. Cairo and Riyadh are also offering Assad an undreamed-of lure, action for the indefinite postponement of the UN tribunal shortly due to open proceedings in The Hague on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The court was to have heard witnesses attesting to Syria's complicity in the plotting and execution of the murder.
Whether or not the Syrian ruler will be tempted to set aside his close ties with Iran or not, he has certainly been given much food for thought. But the ultimate proof of the Saudi pudding will emerge with the outcome of the Kerry mission to Damascus.