US Secretary of State John Kerry was joined by his old sparring partner Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir for a rare confabulation in Doha, the Qatari capital, Monday and Tuesday, 3-4 of August. They were joined by senior diplomats of the Gulf emirates.
It was obvious from the start that the participants were at odds over the main order of business. Kerry was fired up to make the nuclear deal the six powers signed with Iran in Vienna last month the fulcrum for a Sunni-Shiite front to fight Al Qaeda terrorism in all its forms.
The day before he arrived in Doha, he said in Cairo – and not for the first time: “There can be absolutely no question that if the [Iran deal] is fully implemented, it will make Egypt and all the countries of the region safer.”
While this assertion set off some eye-rolling, the attendees, including Saudi Arabia, decided to take the Vienna accord, however undesirable, as a done deal and put an end to the wrangling over its drawbacks
President Barack Obama and John Kerry were to be left to their castles in the air, because Tehran could be counted on at some point to bring bits of it tumbling down.
So Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah, the host, politely endorsed Kelly’s assurance, almost word for word, the cue for discussions to begin on the most pressing order of business: the unresolved conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen, and their destabilizing impact on the entire region.
Syrian and Yemen rulers in swap deal
DEBKA Weekly’s Gulf sources disclose that, before touching on ways and means for terminating those conflicts, the participants began building coalitions for tackling solutions. They argued over who would be at the wheel – Washington, Moscow or – better still – a US-Russian partnership for blazing a common path.
The third course won out and, two days later, on Thursday, Aug. 6, it was on track, helped along, according to an exclusive DEBKA Weekly reports from its Gulf, Washington and Moscow sources, by Washington’s long-serving nuclear mediator with Iran, Oman’s Foreign Minister Youssef Ben Alaoui Ben Abdallah.
Working at top speed, he collected endorsements from Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara, Washington, Moscow and his superiors in Muscat, for a conference to be held under twin headings: The war on ISIS and ways and means of ending the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.
Additional Middle East participants, like Syria and Iraq, would be co-opted to sessions dealing with items relevant to their case.
Two teams of intelligence and strategic experts are already at work in Washington and Moscow under the eyes of Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin. They are compiling plans for terminating the Syrian and Yemeni wars in careful stages. The plans are predicated on the initial premise that Bashar Assad stays in power for the time being, in exchange for the reinstatement of the exiled pro-American Yemen president Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi.
Fragile new grouping to be handled with care
These moves are to be handled with the utmost care, the ground tested before moving from one stage to the next. The Iranians need to be satisfied that Assad’s rule will not be placed in jeopardy by untoward events in the course of 2016; and the Saudis seek assurances that the pro-Iranian Houthi insurgency really has been squashed.
Riyadh also seeks a comprehensive guarantee from Iran, underwritten by Moscow and Washington, to halt its subversive operations in the region and withdraw its support from Shiite terrorism in the Gulf States, especially in the oil-rich Shiite provinces of eastern Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain and Kuwait.
(Read separate item on Tehran’s phased withdrawal from its support for the Houthis.)
Although Yemen is important, Assad’s fate has evolved as the most pressing issue at stake and the key to progress on all the other ills on the collective agenda. Therefore, the first move taken after the Doha conference was a trip by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to Tehran Tuesday, Aug. 4. His task was to transmit Assad’s response to the deal Putin put earlier before a Syrian delegation of Assad loyalists who visited Moscow in June.
Ties Putin cultivated with Riyadh keep Assad in power
From those talks sprang the secret trip to Riyadh, which Putin organized for Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, director of the Syrian National Security Bureau at the head of another secret Syrian delegation. These visitors were most unexpected after years of enmity between the Saudi royal house and the Assad regime. The Syrian spy chiefs were in fact received by the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense minister Mohammed Bin Salman – just one level below the king. The meeting was brokered by a high Russian intelligence official to make sure it went smoothly.
Putin cultivated cordial relations with Prince Mohammed soon after he emerged as the rising man in Riyadh under the new king. He quickly convinced him it was worth his while to start melting the ice between the Sunni Kingdom and Shiite Iran and sold him on the following deal: The Russian leader would promote steps for restoring the Yemeni president to the presidential palace in Sanaa in lieu of Saudi acceptance of Assad’s continued survival in office.
Each constructive Iranian action in Yemen and the Gulf would be matched by Saudi counter-moves in Syria and Iraq.
That deal has begun moving forward: DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that Tehran this week started decelerating its support for the Yemeni Houthis at the same time as Riyadh began easing up on its assistance to Syrian rebels.
Salman updates Jordanian King
The new understanding brought the Saudi king’s son to Amman on Tuesday Aug. 4 to update Jordan’s King Abdullah II. He explained why it had become necessary to slow assistance to the rebels fighting Assad n southern Syria, and why Jordan needed to coordinate its policy for Syria and campaign against ISIS in Iraq with a new set of partners – not just Washington, but a US-Russian-Iranian-Saudi alignment.
(See DW 672 of July 31: Jordanian Troops in Iraq for First Real Seek-and-Destroy mission against ISIS).
The sequel to Moallem’s trip to Tehran then began to play out.
On Thursday, Aug. 6, Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Jarav Zarif caught a plane to Muscat to hand over Assad’s response to the terms conveyed through Putin for him to stay in power in Damascus.
This answer Zarif put before the Omani foreign minister, as a building block for his next step as go-between for pulling Tehran, Washington and Riyadh together.
Our sources report that Assad’s reply was essentially positive but, typically of Assad, conditions were attached, which are yet to be disclosed. Meanwhile much later Thursday, the Syrian foreign minister joined Zarif in Muscat for a final word on this.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave the Obama administration a helping hand for untangling the complications set up by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the deal he struck with Washington for granting US planes access to Turkish air bases for air raids over Syria.
ISIS provides fragile glue for the new alignment to fight it
Erdogan’s gratuitous broadening of the deal – to cover security and no-fly zones in Syria and a Turkish offensive against separatist Kurdis – did not go down well in Washington, Russia or Saudi Arabia.
So the Iranian president phoned Erdogan Wednesday night with some friendly advice.
He proposed that Turkey and Iran “achieve a joint plan and a practical solution with each other’s help for uprooting terrorism in the region.” He added: “Consolidation and expansion of ties between Tehran and Ankara is of paramount importance to us.”
In other words, Turkey like the rest of the region must pull together and place the war on the jihadis at the top of its scale of priorities – even if this means swallowing hard and accepting the decision to keep Assad in power for the greater good.
There are plenty of weighty issues hanging over the new grouping before it can get its act together.
Still up in the air is the Islamic State’s response to the new alignment’s war plans. In this regard, DEBKA Weekly notes an odd paradox: The imperative to fight ISIS has brought Washington, Moscow and Riyadh together for a common cause. But the jihadist glue is fragile. None of the new partners is likely to test it to the limit by going all out against the Islamic State, or hazard a major effort to dislodge the caliphate from captured terrain in Syria or Iraq.