Quite without warning, Syrian president Bashar Assad emplaned Wednesday, Sept. 23, for Jeddah after months of strife with the Saudi king.
Official statements said he had accepted an invitation to attend a ceremony for King Abdullah to inaugurate the first co-ed university in the oil kingdom at Thuwal in the Makkah Province of Saudi Arabia, 80 kilometers north of Jeddah. Vast sums have been sunk in the new high-tech campus which reformers hope will herald a spirit of change in the hidebound Islamic state after a series of setbacks. They were forced by the clergy to shelve such ultra-liberal reforms as local council elections and cancel a number of cultural events.
The new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has attracted more than 70 professors and 800 students from abroad.
But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly Middle East sources, Assad's trip to Saudi Arabia, far from being a formality, ties in with three profound political developments:
1. Saudi King ready to bury the hatchet with Assad
1. It culminates months of intensive exchanges for burying the rift between the Saudi and Syrian rulers. They are led by the Saudi chief of intelligence, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, and Assad's current favorite, the director of Syrian General Intelligence (GI), General Ali Mamluk, who is assisted by another close friend of the president, Samir al-Taqi, director of the Al-Sharq Center for International Relations in Damascus.
Our sources describe Al-Taqi as a linchpin in this process owing to his close ties with Fred Hoff, head of the Syrian desk on the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell's team. As Assad's facilitator, he also coordinates the contacts between Damascus and Washington.
The Sharq center which he heads has also been tasked with preparing the ground for Syrian-Israeli peace talks under US sponsorship.
Assad's trip to the Saudi kingdom indicates that the Syrian-Saudi track has reached a successful conclusion and King Abdullah is ready to bury the hatchet with the Syrian ruler.
Some Gulf intelligence sources have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the reconciliation was partly cemented by their shared antagonism for Iraq's Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The Syrian ruler has not forgiven him for accusing the Damascus government of providing shelter, training, funding and intelligence to Iraqi insurgents, including the perpetrators of the August 19 Baghdad massacre which left 95 Iraqis dead and over 1,000 injured.
The Saudi monarch, for his part, resents the Iraqi prime minister's charge that he is financing the revived al Qaeda offensive in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad and the outlying provinces of Anbar, Diyala and Nineveh. Maliki claims that Riyadh is also raising the funds for Sunni tribal resistance to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council emirates.
2. Assad's Iran ties come in handy
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and intelligence sources also reveal that Assad has used the intelligence channel he has opened to the Saudi ruler for an offer to act as mediator between Riyadh and Tehran for ending the Iran-backed Houthi uprising in northern Yemen. He first approached Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and obtained an undertaking to join a four-sided summit for solving the conflict with Saudi, Yemeni and Syrian rulers.
Even with US, Saudi and Egyptian military assistance, Abdullah Salah's army has not managed to quell the rebellion after two months. For the Saudis, therefore, Assad's proposal offers the best chance yet for concluding the war in their back yard before it spreads to the Shiite tribes of the southern Saudi provinces of Najran and Asir.
3. A crack in the Lebanon gridlock
President Assad has finally indicated he might be willing to stop obstructing the negotiations for a national unity government in Beirut. He threw a spanner in Saad Hariri's effort to form a government in August when the Obama administration cooled its diplomatic dialogue with Damascus in protest over the Syrian ruler's permissiveness and support for insurgents and terrorists striking Iraq from bases on his soil.
Our Gulf and Middle East sources expect the talks between Assad and King Abdullah at the university inauguration Thursday to mark a breakthrough toward settling their quarrel. Removal of that blockage should in turn clear the way for Washington and Damascus to resume their talks on a thaw and bring together a larger package: The negotiations for the formation of a Lebanese government should make progress and a window may open for talks to start on ending the Yemen civil war.