Not since the late 1990's, when the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would personally abuse fellow Arab leaders at summits, have political observers in the Gulf region heard voices raised like that of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak at the Riyadh conference on March 12, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources report.
The Egyptian president yelled at his shocked and pale colleague, president Bashar Assad:
“You could have stopped Iran smuggling arms to Hamas, but you've done nothing!” he shouted. “You're a menace to Egypt's national security and I won't stand for it!”
Mubarak then turned to threats: “If you don't stop acting as Tehran's pipeline to Hamas, we'll make you pay,” he said. “You're letting Iran into our back yard!”
At this point, the ruler of Kuwait, Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, stepped in to restore calm to the four-way summit hosted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
But by then, no one was in the mood for the ritual smiling photo-op to mark the event.
Syria's Assad Fails an Egyptian Test
According to our sources, Mubarak's outburst appeared to have some effect on Assad – at first. But the question on all lips in Cairo and Riyadh was: Has the Syrian ruler changed for real or is he going through the motions?
As the week wore on, it became clear that Assad did not propose to change his ways in any substantial respect.
When he arrived home in Damascus Friday, March 13, he instructed Hamas leaders to give ground slightly, going down from 100 to 90 percent on their demands for the release of the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, they had been holding for nearly three years.
This was reported exclusively by DEBKAfile on Monday, March 16 (Read HOT POINTS).
But Cairo was not satisfied. To test Assad's real motives, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman phoned pro-Iranian Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Damascus and invited him to travel urgently to Cairo, arriving on Sunday, March 15, to take part in the key Fatah-Hamas negotiations for burying the hatchet and building new relations around a Palestinian unity government.
But Meshaal stayed away. He claimed he needed to consult with his advisers, but confided to his inner circle that he had no intention of going to Cairo. Assad could have made him go but did not.
For Egypt, he failed to come up to scratch where it counted.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources tracking the Riyadh summit and its aftermath stress that while Bashar Assad talks the talk about repairing his broken ties with the West and the moderate Arab bloc, he stops short of walking away from Iran. He backed out of ordering Meshaal to travel to Cairo because that would have defied Iran's wishes.
Iran seeks Saudi assurance, gets pointed rebuff
Saudi Arabia's post-summit moves confirmed the battle lines no less than those of Egypt.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's report that in typical icy tones, Saudi foreign Minister Prince Saud Bin Faisal administered a hard dressing-down to his counterpart from across the Gulf, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Mottaki had dropped in for a surprise visit to Riyadh to seek Saudi assurance that the next Arab League summit, slated for March 31 at Doha, Qatar, would not become the arena for slanging Iran. Faisal dodged the query, avoiding committing himself to any position. Instead, he gave his visitor a preview of the anti-Iran rhetoric he had come to forestall: An explicit assault on Iranian meddling in Arab affairs.
While Mubarak focused on Syria's misdeeds with regard to Hamas and Gaza, Saud bin Faisal went for Tehran on its role in Lebanon. And unlike the Egyptian diatribe, he made sure that his subtler assault reached the media.
Answering a planted question from reporters after his conversation with Mottaki, Saud bin Faisal said:
“[I told him that] Lebanon's enemy is outside the country, and not the son of the country.”
To make his point clear, the prince went on to say: “Much as we appreciate Iran's support for Arab causes, we would like to see it channeled through Arab legality and be in harmony with its objectives.”
He later added a piece of diplomatic fudge: “I met him afterwards and discussed with him all these questions in a spirit of honesty, clarity and transparency.”
Assad sticks to Tehran
The next day, Monday, March 16, Assad's apparent gesture to soften Hamas in the bargaining over a prisoner swap for Shalit turned out to be no more than a charade. Hamas pretended to bow to the Syrian ruler's directive while at the same time presenting a new and tougher list of convicted Palestinian terrorists for release, through its delegation in Cairo. That night, the Egypt-brokered prisoner negotiations hit a wall and broke off, prompting a rise in tensions between Hamas and Israel.
Cairo, feeling cheated by Damascus, saw another ill omen on its border with Gaza: Iran had not only flouted Mubarak's demand to stop smuggling arms to Hamas, but stepped up the flow.
In another piece of sleight of hand, Assad pretended to support the Hamas' pragmatic faction which opposes total dependence on Iran (led by Khaled Mashal's deputy, Musa Abu Marzouk, Gazan Hamas leader Mahmoud a-Zahar and Hayman Taha, new controller of intelligence, special executive forces and police in Gaza), and even muzzled hardline Meshaal. In fact, he had not shifted position one whit and done nothing to slacken Iran's grip on Hamas, or meet the moderate Arab leaders.
According to a Persian Gulf source consulted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly, Assad sees no profit in changing sides at this juncture: He does not believe the Obama administration's projected dialogue with Tehran will end in a breakthrough or even partial accord.
No profit for Damascus in changing sides
His skepticism is partly grounded in words coming from the Saudis and Egyptians themselves, such as this:
The United States claims that resuming ties with Syria is an attempt to distance it from Iran. But at the same time, the US administration itself is opening up to Iran. How can it justify to itself its attempts in this regard whilst at the same time wanting to convince Damascus to cut its ties with Iran?
(From an article in Al Sharq al-Awsat of March 13, by Huda al-Husseini, a writer well connected to the Saudi royal family)
Paradoxically, the very dialogue that Barack Obama seeks to foster with Iran is a disincentive for Damascus to change its ways. A breakthrough in US-Iran relations would relieve the pressure on Syria over its bond with Tehran; continued deadlock would raise the value attached by Washington to Syrian cooperation.
But even if the US were to re-orient its diplomatic thrust on Damascus instead of Tehran, there is not much it can do to induce Assad to give up his affinity to Tehran, free Lebanon from his domineering shadow, or improve human rights in Syria. Better peace terms than those conceded by Ehud Olmert are not expected to come from the future Netanyahu government.
Bashar Assad has a long history of dogged adherence to his policies in the face of isolation and recrimination. In the end, it usually paid off in the coin of incentives from the West and Arab foes to thaw relations.
He therefore sees no reason to change his stance or tactics, which include occasional non-binding concessions to mislead his opponents and titillate their expectations.