The top Saudi echelon, up to and including King Abdullah, sees Bashar Assad and the Allawite regime in Damascus as a weak and dispensable link in Iran’s front against the United States and Israel in the Middle East.
This view was advanced by Princes Bandar and Muqrin when they met US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Amman on Feb. 19.
It was also implicit in the successful outcome of their negotiations with Iran to preserve the Fouad Siniora government.
The princes, who kept King Abdullah in Riyadh abreast of their talks on Lebanon with the Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani, reported their impression that Syria and its president had lost their strategic clout for Tehran in the Lebanese arena. By the same reckoning, Bashar Assad had been reduced to a bit player in the determination of Iran’s positions on a settlement of the Iraq crisis.
Shortly before they made their presentation to the US secretary in Amman, the Saudi princes received word that Tehran was willing to work on a joint Saudi-Iranian text as the basis for an international tribunal to try the suspects in the two-year old assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The Iranians were not troubled by the decision reached by the UN investigator Serge Brammertz to bring before the tribunal leading members of the regime in Damascus, including Assad’s close relatives and high intelligence officers. Tehran’s only condition for this joint effort was the non-implication of Hizballah members
The Saudis gained the impression that Tehran was willing to throw Syria to the wolves as long as Hizballah was exonerated. They inferred that, just as the Bush administration had been disappointed in Israel’s military performance in the war with Hizballah last summer, so too Iran had felt let down by Syria’s lukewarm involvement in the conflict on the side of the Hizballah.
Assad was therefore abandoned and vulnerable – and therefore ripe for regime change, in the view of the Saudi princes – regardless of whether or not Washington reached a regional settlement with Tehran.
King Abdullah would underwrite Muslim Brotherhood cooperation
They assured the US secretary that overthrowing the incumbent regime would not put Syria in danger of disintegration like Iraq or of falling into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As representatives of the devout Sunni Muslim kingdom, Bandar and Muqrin felt qualified to assure the US secretary that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood had abandoned the path of violence and dissolved its operational arm. If the Americans were in doubt, the Saudi monarch was ready to offer his royal guarantee to underwrite the Muslim Brotherhood’s cooperation in any political change resulting from the removal of the Assad regime, including a democratic election.
On the Syrian question, the pair stressed three points:
1. Washington must at all costs prevent Israel from entering into dialogue with Syria for a peace settlement and disposition of the disputed Golan, because Assad would gain a means of escaping his isolation.
2. Like in Iran, Riyadh wants the Bush administration to harden its campaign to undermine Assad by a combination of siege tactics, sanctions and harnessing minority disaffection for direct action.
3. The Saudis see Damascus as the key to Iraq’s recovery and stabilization and the containment of Iran’s momentum.
That said, the Saudis added a word of caution: They informed Condoleezza Rice of the intelligence received in Riyadh that the Iranians were saying one thing to the Saudis and the Americans, and another to the Syrians. Indeed, they had learned of an Iranian message to Assad the sense of which was: Don’t worry. At the end of the road, we won’t desert you. Meanwhile, don’t react to our maneuvers. Your silence will help us hoodwink the Americans.
This piece of intelligence has left the Syrian issue up in the air.
Nonetheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that when the detailed Saudi blueprint was put before the US-Arab intelligence summit in Amman on Feb. 20, it was acclaimed by all the Arab secret service chiefs present – Egyptian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, Qatari, UAE and Moroccan.
They seconded the Saudi conclusion that removing Assad from government in Damascus was the first priority for stabilizing the region. Then, if engagement with Tehran failed, America should go into action against Iran.