Building on the nuclear accord signed in Vienna last month, the Obama administration has been in close communion with Moscow and Tehran on regional moves to save the Assad regime, as the key to their next regional policies, including a united front against the Islamic State.. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners are being assiduously wooed to join the new alignment being set up for this purpose. The live wire in getting them all together is Omani Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah, the secret broker who brought Iran and the United States to the negotiating table for a nuclear accord. This was first reported in the last DEBKA Weekly.
Wednesday, Aug. 7, Obama threw out his first hint on this development: “The window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria, partly because both Russia and Iran, I think, recognize that the trend lines are not good for Assad,” he said. “Neither of those patrons are particularly sentimental; they don’t seem concerned about the humanitarian disaster that’s been wrought by Assad and this conflict over the last several years, but they are concerned about the potential collapse of the Syrian state. And that means, I think, the prospect of more serious discussions than we’ve had in the past.”
The US president then affirmed more strongly in a CNN interview Sunday, Aug. 9: “Is there the possibility that having begun conversations around this narrow issue [the nuclear accord with Iran] that you start getting some broader discussions about Syria, for example, and the ability of all the parties involved to try to arrive at a political transition that keeps the country intact and does not further fuel the growth of ISIL and other terrorist organizations? I think that's possible,” Obama said. “But I don't think it happens immediately."
The administration and its prospective partners are united by the will to destroy ISIS – in its Syrian stronghold, for starters – but are divided on much else, DEBKA file reports. And so the process is moving forward in careful steps.
Their initial focus is on Syria, the bloody battleground which in less than five years has left at least 300,000 dead and more than 10 million people homeless.
The plan the group started out with in the last ten days was a swap as simple as it was ruthless: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would slow their assistance to Syrian rebel groups, against whom President Bashar Assad’s army and allies would hold their fire; Iran, for its part, was to start withdrawing its support from the Yemeni Houthis insurgents.
The informal truce in Syria would be the stage for the Assad regime and rebel groups to start discussing a new government with room for opposition parties. The Islamists of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front would not be invited.
In Yemen, Tehran would cut back on the arms and intelligence which have enabled the Houthi insurgents to stand up to the combined forces of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. The pro-Western Yemeni President Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi would be restored to his palace in Sanaa and invite the insurgent leader, Abdu Malik Al-Houthi, to discuss his partnership in a new government.
This deal was tantamount to a joint US-Russian guarantee of Bashar Assad survival in power in return for a Tehran-Riyadh compact for Hadi’s reinstatement in Sanaa.
These arrangements were debated back and forth in exchanges, some semi-secret, among the leading actors for most of July. The visit to Riyadh of the Syrian intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk was set up by Moscow as a major push forward.
The plan was for the entire enterprise to be brought out in the open and sealed in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Aug. 3 at a conference attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and other top Gulf diplomats.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was not there. But he put a strong oar into the proceedings by calling in at Muscat, Oman the day before the conference and subsequently on Friday Aug. 7. Assad also kept his hand in by sending his foreign minister Walid Moallem to Tehran and Muscat last week.
But then, at Doha, just as the package was ready to unveil, the Saudi foreign minister pulled away and blew it up with two provisions: a) Riyadh would not countenance Bashar Assad being allowed to stay in office, and: b) Saudi Arabia would not do business with any representative of the Assad regime.
This put a large spoke in the main wheel of the initiative and also scuttled some of the secondary plans depending on it.
But by then, a lot was happening in the Yemeni and Syrian war arenas:
1. Saudi and UAE armored forces had landed in Aden and were closing in on the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. The Houthi rebels, trained and armed by Iran, were forced to retreat without negotiations on their future role in government.
2. Syrian rebel leaders, sensing the approaching betrayal, sent a secret delegation to Tehran to discuss terms for opening negotiations with Assad. They too were left at sea about the deals in play among Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh over their future.
Saturday, Aug.8, the Russians, egged on by the Americans, set about winning Riyadh into the fold, Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir was invited to pay a visit to Moscow Tuesday, Aug. 11, for talks about the Syrian conflict and the war on the Islamic State.
Refusing to accept that the new initiative had been grounded in Doha, Moscow presented the visit as continuing the ongoing dialogue on the issues raised at that encounter.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources note that neither Israel nor Jordan has been co-opted to this big power initiative, as though they are not concerned. However, both have a big stake in Saudi Arabia’s next decisions. If Riyadh is won over by US-Russian blandishments and goes back on its decision to boycott Assad, the Saudi-Israeli-Jordanian effort to support Syrian rebel control of southern Syria will fall apart. This will open up both countries to new perils on their northern borders.