Is Damascus about to Loosen its Ties with Tehran?

An all-Arab Middle East club would by definition leave Iran out in the cold.

That was the ambitious objective of the mini-summit of Arab rulers which opened in Riyadh Wednesday, March 10.

It was a summit of reconciliation between the heads of the pro-West conservative Arab Sunni camp, Saudi King Abdullah, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah – and the Syrian dissenter Bashar Assad.

Restoring the Syrian ruler to the Arab fold as an honored member was a major diplomatic feat credited to Barak Obama as his first Middle East success.

It took place as administration officials were stressing that the Middle East is nowhere near the top of its agenda, although Obama's plans for dialogue with Tehran were still on course.

The current Washington tactics for weakening Iran by separating it from its Arab neighborhood may turn out to be counterproductive for promoting dialogue with Tehran, since the Iranians cannot be expected to take it lying down. But first, the administration is using the Saudi-Syrian detente in Riyadh as a device to lure Bashar Assad into breaking away from his comprehensive strategic pact with the Islamic Republic.

Success would be deemed in Washington a real diplomatic breakthrough.

The optimists in the administration believe that the promise of high prestige for Assad as an Arab ruler rather than Iran's partner will do the trick and he may be falling for Arab mainstream appeal already.


Assad appears receptive to Arab role


On March 9, he confessed in an interview with the United Arab Emirates daily al-Khaleej: “First of all, I am an Arab. After that, come other friends and comrades.” This remark was clearly addressed to the Saudi and Egyptian leaders Assad would be meeting in Riyadh the next day.

The same optimists argue that the adhesive binding Syria to Iran is essentially defensive, a perception of shared enemies, Saddam Hussein's Iraq and US-backed Israel.

Today's Iraq, six years after the US invasion, no longer looks menacing. All that is needed now, according to this school of thought, is to prevail upon Israel to return the Golan to Syria and sign a peace treaty with the Assad regime. The defensive walls will then start crumbling, along with the raison d'etre for the Tehran-Damascus pact.

(There is of course the opposite view that the alliance is aggressive and expansionist rather than defensive, with Assad seeking to dominate Syria's neighbors and Iran striving for hegemonic status in the region.)

Four Syrian steps, outlined here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources, are taken by the US, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to indicate Assad may be ripe for deemphasizing his ties with Tehran in favor of his Arab affinity:

1. The Damascus media and Syrian commentators have criticized Tehran for questioning Bahrain's sovereignty and followed the Egyptian-Saudi line which rules out any Iranian territorial claims on the little Arab oil kingdom. Morocco broke off relations with Iran over this spat and Mubarak offered Bahrain troops after an Iranian official remarked that the little Gulf kingdom used to be the 14th province of Iran.

(A separate item in this issue deals with the Shiite riots in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain).


Rewards soften Assad up for gestures


2. Damascus has suddenly come down on the side of the United Arab Emirates after many years of ignoring their controversy with Iran over Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, the three Persian Gulf islands controlled by Tehran since 1992.

3. Syria also broke ranks with Tehran on the international arrest warrant against Sudanese president Omar Bashir for crimes against humanity. Damascus first lined up with Tehran's total backing for Bashir. But at the Arab foreign ministers emergency meeting in Cairo on March 4, Walid Moalem voted for a mild resolution voicing concern about the arrest warrant.

Assad may have been softened up by a major gesture from Riyadh.

This month, without fanfare, the Saudi-backed opposition Syrian Muslim Brotherhood discontinued its propaganda and subversion campaign against the Assad government and a dramatic new tune was broadcast by its exiled leader, Ali Sadr Ad-Din Al-Bayanouni.

He said in a statement appearing on the Brotherhood's internal publications on March 1: “We don't want Iraq-style regime change [in Syria] and we don't want to be used by the Americans as a threat to the regime.”

For decades, the ruling Assads, from the days of Bashar's father, Hafez, have lived under the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. This threat has now been lifted on orders from Riyadh.

The Brotherhood would count Assad's throwing in his lot with the Arab-oriented, West-leaning camp as sufficient regime change.

4. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources attribute the slowdown of Palestinian missile fire from Gaza against Israel to a directive from Damascus.

Saturday, March 7, Hamas ordered its own missile teams and those of the Iran-backed Jihad Islami to stop shooting at Israel. The scattered launchings since then are mostly wide of targets because the radical Hamas has stopped handing out more accurate missiles to Jihad.

Monday, Hamas special squads requisitioned 80 Jihad mosques and charities.

For weeks, not a peep has come from the hardline Khaled Meshaal, the pro-Iranian Hamas politburo chief based in Damascus. (Read more about these developments in HOT POINTS below).

The Saudis and Egyptians are taking these developments as signifying Assad's willingness to take control of the pro-Iranian Palestinian groups, such as Hamas which is armed and funded by Tehran, and the Jihad Islami, Iran's own Palestinian protege.


Syria still cagey about compromising commitments to Tehran


However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources caution against reading into these gestures a complete change of heart on the part of the wily Assad, who is perfectly capable of juggling several balls at once, as many American diplomats have discovered before.

They point out that none of his concessions impinges directly on his commitment to military-strategic collaboration with Tehran. They have won him recognition and rewards before his true intentions are tested. Assad's sincerity would have to face real acid tests such as consent to work with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon to curb the military and political strength of Hizballah, Iran's foremost agent on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard.

For now, the reverse is true – with one exception.

Last week, Assad indicated to Washington, Cairo and Riyadh – and indirectly to Jerusalem – that he had decided to keep the mobile anti-air SA-8 missiles destined for the Lebanese Hizballah on the Syrian side of the border and not send them over to Lebanon.

(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 383 of Feb. 6: Syria Poised to Supply Hizballah with Sophisticated Anti-Air SA-8 Missiles).

That could have been a matter of prudently abstaining from pushing Israel over the limit by this “game-breaker”, rather than a new policy, because the Syrian president has also ordered his undercover agents to underwrite Hizballah's election campaign and promote pro-Syrian candidates for Lebanon's general elections in July.

July is obviously going to be a watershed month for testing where Assad stands.

He has also scheduled a major shakeup of his military and security services (as reported in a separate item in this issue) for that midsummer month.

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