On June 23, American, Saudi, and Syrian diplomats embarked on a backdoor project to mend the fences between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence and Middle East sources report that success in this ploy has the potential for landmark shifts in the Middle East that would impinge on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinians, US-Syrian relations and the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Our sources report that although the Saudi-Syrian drama is at full momentum, its successful conclusion is far from assured.
Acting on behalf of the Saudi king is his son, Prince Abdelaziz, a close personal strategic adviser, and propaganda minister Abdelaziz Hawaja. Assad is acting on his own behalf on the Syrian side.
To keep these important negotiations under close wraps, both sides have dispensed with their foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs.
The exchanges of delegates carrying questions and answers between the two rulers began in the third week of June. The last Saudi visit to Damascus, their third, took place on July 2.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has obtained a rundown of the three main issues on which progress has been chalked up:
1. The two rulers are discussing jointly backing Iraq's Sunnis against persecution by the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. If finalized, this collaboration would draw a line against Tehran's interference.
2. A joint Syrian-Saudi umbrella for a government of national unity in Lebanon. To conclude this deal, Lebanese prime minister-designate Sa'ad Hariri would have to visit Damascus. He has balked until now, refusing to shake hands with Syrian high-ups suspected of assassinating his father, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005.
Hamas like Hizballah would win legitimacy
But if King Abdullah were to insist, he would acquiesce, with two consequences: The Obama administration would restore a US Ambassador to the Syrian capital after a four-year absence; and Hizballah would be brought into the unity government by an offer of one-third of the cabinet portfolios and possibly, although this is still under discussion, veto power over government decisions.
3. A Saudi-Syrian umbrella for a loose Palestinian national unity administration that would be a sort of supra- government. The Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians are talking about a joint Hamas-Fatah supreme council as the source of authority over a Palestinian government headed by Salam Fayed.
This formula is designed not only to patch up the quarrel between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah, but also get around the Middle East road map requirement that Hamas recognize Israel as a condition for a standing in the peace process. Fatah would remain in control of the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, both of them subject to the supreme council.
The deal would cover the reciprocal release of Fatah and Hamas prisoners, as well elections to the Palestinian parliament and presidency, which have been set for 2010.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that the Israeli government is being kept au fait with this development. Defense minister Ehud Barak is contact-man with the American and Egyptian prime movers and through them with the Saudis.
A paragraph in the joint communique of Barak's talks in London this week with the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell stated that they discussed a possible Israel-Lebanese peace accord.
Our sources report that this was the main topic of their discussion, not the argument over the freeze on settlement construction on the West Bank.