When Saudi King Abdullah visited Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Wednesday, July 28, at the start of his grand tour for the promotion of Arab unity, he found his host as adamant as ever about boycotting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Five months ago, when Assad wanted to come to Cairo to wish Mubarak a speedy recovery from the cancer surgery he has just undergone in Germany, he was told by the Egyptian presidential palace that his presence was not wanted, an expression of the Egyptian president's deep revulsion and contempt for Assad's close ties with Tehran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources confirm that, no matter how many times Mubarak snubbed the Syrian president, King Abdullah was adamant about going through with his plan to visit Damascus Thursday, July 29 and have Assad accompany him to Beirut the next day, along with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad ibn Khalifa al-Thani.
There, they have arranged to meet Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.
The ambitious Saudi octogenarian has embarked on two tough ventures backed by the Obama administration: to end the war in Afghanistan (see the preceding item in this issue) and promote amity among Arab rulers.
Both were approved when the king and President Barak Obama met at the White House on June 29 for the overriding objective of dislodging Iranian footholds from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by the following steps:
Lebanon's Saad Hariri accepts Syrian domination after Saudi arm-twisting
1. The Obama administration will secretly accept the restoration of Syria's political and economic influence in Lebanon and go so far as to actively promote it.
2. To lay the foundation for this step, Abdullah had to persuade Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri to go to Damascus on July 18 and come to terms with Assad on ground rules for renewed Syrian involvement in Lebanon.
The official photos of that encounter portray two leaders in friendly discourse but, according to our intelligence sources, it was tough going and might have failed were it not for the unpublicized presence of King Abdullah's younger son Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, 46, who was standing by to save the day.
Recently appointed as the king's special envoy on complicated and delicate intra-Arab issues, Prince Abdullah made sure that Assad and Hariri were clear on their commitments and assured them of a Saudi guarantee to underwrite their accords.
A day of exhausting wrangling ended with the Syrian and Lebanese leaders signing 17 cooperation pacts covering security and economic issues.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that the content of these documents makes Assad the real sovereign of his little neighbor Lebanon – not president Suleiman or the prime minister.
To rule the roost in Beirut and Baghdad, Assad must cool his ties with Tehran
3. In Damascus, King Abdullah confronted Assad with the following challenges:
– He is required to pay for US-Saudi support for his restored domination of Lebanon with steps of his own – as Prince Abdullah reported to the king and the CIA's No. 2 Michael J. Morell when they in at the king's summer palace in Casablanca Monday, July 26, in Casablanca?
(Other aspects of the Casablanca meeting are described in the preceding item.)
– The Syrian ruler is obligated to gradually reduce his ties with the Lebanese Hizballah extremists. This entails a freeze on the massive supplies of Syrian weaponry to Hizballah and the phasing out of Syria as corridor for Iranian arms to reach the Lebanese Shiite militia.
Whereas Assad has consistently backed Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and championed his political ambitions in Beirut, from now on, the Syrian ruler is committed by the 17 cooperation accords he signed with Hariri to side with the Lebanese prime minister against Hizballah.
– Assad is also required to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in establishing a coalition government in Baghdad consisting of Iyad Allawi's secular Shiite Al Iraqiya movement and supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has gone to live in the religious city of Qom.
Just as Mubarak despises Assad, the Saudi king looks down at the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom he calls "an Iranian agent," and is willing to do whatever it takes to remove him from Baghdad once and for all.
Saudis oil the wheels with the usual – petrodollars
To oil the wheels of his plan, King Abdullah's agents are spending lavishly to persuade lawmakers who are members of Maliki's State of Law Party to change their loyalties.
Assad, for his part, organized a three-way meeting with Allawi and al-Sadr in Damascus Monday, July 19, the day after Hariri's visit, and struck deals with them for consolidating Syrian influence in Baghdad as well.
The Obama administration and the Saudi royal house have therefore set in motion steps for making the Syrian president the most powerful force in two Arab capitals, Beirut and Baghdad – provided he keeps up his end of the bargain and begins to distance himself from Iran and Hizballah.
As seen from the White House, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report, the Saudi steps in Afghanistan and the Arab world are modular in the sense that if one initiative falls apart, the other should stay afloat.
But to succeed, the entire new package requires that Taliban, Assad and the Hizballah see their roles from the same viewpoint as the Americans, the Saudis and the Pakistanis.
If they don't, the Obama administration is in for more of the disappointments and setbacks it has sustained in both arenas in the last eighteen months.