US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due in Riyadh Friday, March 30, shortly after the Arab League’s 23rd Summit in Baghdad fully adopted the UN envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for settling the Syrian crisis and recommended its “immediate and complete” implementation.
Clinton hoped her host Saudi King Abdullah, who did not attend the summit, would undersign the plan after its endorsement by Washington, Moscow, Damascus and Beijing – especially as it is a key chapter of what Washington is calling Obama’s Grand Diplomatic Offensive, now being finalized in a rush of interlocking diplomatic comings and goings.
The long months of strategic planning in the White House and State Department reached a high point when US President Barack Obama met Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Seoul on March 25 and handed him a detailed message for passing to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the sole arbiter of Iran’s nuclear program, when he travelled to Tehran Wednesday, March 28.
(See a separate article in this issue: In Washington, Key Decisions on Hold: Same Obama Message for Putin and Khamenei: Give Me Space).
It was hoped that the Iranian leader would cooperate with the Obama two-track diplomatic initiative and buy Annan’s formula for Syria. The fate of the Erdogan mission is still hanging fire.
The next traveler to Tehran after the Arab summit was to be Kofi Annan to sell his Syrian plan to the Iranians.
Stumbling blocks still to be overcome
This too is Clinton’s mission in Riyadh. It is up to her to persuade the King and the senior princes, Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal, Defense Minister Salman and the Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin to lend their support to the plan, patronized by the UN and Arab League, for pacifying Syria and inaugurating dialogue between President Bashar Assad and opposition leaders.
If that is achieved, the Secretary of State will use the momentum to try and sweep the Saudis aboard the complete Obama initiative with regard to Iran as well.
Success in stabilizing the Assad regime is intended to impress Iranian leaders with Washington’s goodwill and diplomatic prowess, so arming the Obama administration with the key to the success of the nuclear negotiations opening on April 13 between Iran and the big powers.
Many of the balls are still up in the air, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington and the Gulf.
The US plan looks attainable – if the remaining stumbling blocks can be removed and its disparate parts connected up.
One major obstacle remains in Riyadh.
While on the face of it, the Saudis are willing to accept the Annan plan, they do not believe it can work and are meanwhile keeping up their support for the Syrian rebels and striving for the overthrow of the Assad regime in Damascus.
Flawed US intelligence on Syria will wreck Obama offensive
As Clinton headed for the Saudi capital, she received word from US intelligence that the Saudi and Jordanian Kings Abdullah had made up their quarrel and Saudi units would now be permitted to transit the Hashemite kingdom to reach the Syrian frontier and cross over.
The Saudis could now move forward on their plan for establishing military security zones on Syrian territory – a plan that was stymied by pressure from Washington on Jordan’s king (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 523 of March 23 first disclosed).
A high-ranking Gulf intelligence source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly, “Jordan and Saudia are now in 100% agreement about the next military step in Syria, with Qatar on board.”
There is another impediment still to be overcome for Obama plan to gain full credibility.
Gulf intelligence circles are increasingly critical of US policy on Syria on the grounds that it is based on faulty intelligence.
They say Assad’s survivability and his governing skills were consistently underrated; intelligence on the scope of Iranian military aid to Damascus was inaccurate; estimates of the state of the Syrian economy erroneous; and the scale of foreign financial aid not taken into account.
At the same time, too much credence was given by the Obama administration to the highly colored picture painted by the Syrian opposition, which tended to be exaggerated, inaccurate and misleading.
The US may have backed the wrong Syrian opposition
Middle East observers who recently visited Turkey and Syria report that US policy has failed to take into account the enormous gap between the internal opposition inside Syria and the Turkey-based Syrian National Council (SNC).
By engaging the SNC exclusively, Washington is missing the complete gamut of Syrian dissent. Opposition figures inside Syria do not believe the SNC represents their interests, and even certain SNC members complain about the organization's excessive secretiveness.
Both the civil and armed branches of the opposition want weapons. They have lost faith in international intervention ever coming to halt the slaughter and believe that only a combination of arms and civil resistance can bring down Assad, which is their shared goal, and which Washington has avoided.
The US has indiscriminately backed different groups in Homs, Deraa, and Idlib.
Revolutionary Councils hold power in Homs, while influential families rule the roost in Deraa. Idlib is, however, a poor, conservative area, where at least one Salafi sheikh leads a militia of about a thousand armed men.
These fundamentalist, Gulf-funded groups do not share long-term U.S. policy goals; Washington needs to explore the realistic options in that area.
All these oversights which have also dogged the Annan recommendations, could undo Obama’s plans.
Because his Grand Diplomatic Offensive is grounded in flawed intelligence on Syria – and this is known in Damascus and Tehran – many Middle East observers say it is only a matter of time before it runs into the sand.
Before that happens, Secretary Clinton must face the Friends of Syria 2 conference in Istanbul on April 1 with some cogent answers about which way to turn next. The Annan plan offers a framework. The US needs to credibly fill in the space where it says “opposition.”