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US-Saudi diplomacy gives lifeline to Palestinian leadership, two-state solution

How big is Assad’s Suwayda problem?
US President Joe Biden (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) arrive for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022.

Saudi offer comes as Abbas shakes up Palestinian leadership 

Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman has offered to resume financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, if the PA can crack down on militant groups in the West Bank. 

The PA, for its part, is willing to support US-mediated diplomacy between Israel and Saudi Arabia, if Israel gives up some control over West Bank towns and dismantles Israeli settlements there, as Axios reported

These potentially game-changing steps place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back in the center of regional diplomacy, hooked to the next phase of normalization.   

This is a turnaround, and a good one. The dividends of US-Saudi diplomacy are on full display these days. Credit Washington and Riyadh for putting behind a scratchy first year after US President Joe Biden took office. It’s hard to imagine any type of diplomacy moving in the Middle East — whether Israel-Palestine, Iran, or China —  without a fluid US-Saudi relationship. And that seems to be what we have. 

The latest flurry gives PA President Mahmoud Abbas a possible lifeline, but also puts him on the spot. Saudi engagement comes as Abbas is in the midst of a makeover of Palestinian leaders and rising unpopularity, as Daoud Kuttab documents in his must-read newsletter. It may be too little, too late, as the PA hangs on by thread, and sometimes barely that, in an increasingly radicalized West Bank, especially in the camps in Nablus and Jenin.  

The spotlight also shifts to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He badly wants to cement his legacy by establishing ties with Saudi Arabia. For a while he seemed to be getting a pass, as the action turned, and still turns, on the Saudi asks of the United States — more and even better US weapons packages, a security agreement, and a civil nuclear deal — all heavy lifts, requiring Congressional buy-in. 

While Netanyahu was willing to swallow the demands of his hardline coalition partners on a divisive judicial reform bill, he now must contend with their vocal opposition to any concessions to the Palestinians. Agreeing to hold off on annexing parts of the West Bank, as Netanyahu did with a center-right government to secure the Abraham Accords in 2020, is one thing. Dismantling settlements and ceding territory to a weakened PA, with a far-right government, during an uptick in Palestinian attacks on Israelis (35 Israeli Jewish citizens killed so far this year), is another. The mood is dark, and as Ben Caspit writes, “the calls for revenge play well with young, radical settlers who carry out almost daily attacks on their Palestinian neighbors.”   

There are no illusions here about the difficulties ahead to close the deal on Israel-Saudi normalization. But Washington and Riyadh, and by extension Tel Aviv and Ramallah, are having all the right conversations about all the right things. Given the increasingly desperate situation in the West Bank, the declining prospects for a two-state solution, the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, and the challenge of China, US-Saudi diplomacy is more vital then ever.   

Suwayda and Syria’s new normal 

Protests by thousands of Syrians in the southwest province of Suwayda have entered their second week, prompting concerns of a coming crackdown by Syrian security forces.  

The Syrian government has so far mostly held back, despite calls by demonstrators for the downfall of President Bashar Al-Assad and the sacking of Bath party offices, as Amberin Zaman reports

Suwayda is a predominantly Druze city, the capital of the province of the same name, with over 300,000 residents, located in the southwest of the country near the Jordanian border, just over 100 kilometers from Damascus. 

The protests started after the government reduced fuel subsidies, increasing economic distress, including in regime-controlled provinces. US-led sanctions have compounded their misery. Arab states have sought to normalize ties with the government to help stave off further state collapse and humanitarian catastrophe, and to counter Iranian influence.  

Whether Suwayda is a sign of some acute challenge to Assad’s staying power, it’s hard to say. Suwayda, and the Druze, stayed mostly on the sidelines during the Syrian uprising which began in 2011. The city faced a wave of killings and kidnappings by the Islamic State (IS) in 2018; the Druze are high on the terrorist group’s apostate lists. Since 2020, the province has been the scene of episodic anti-government demonstrations.  

The protests these past ten days seem of greater magnitude. But there are also constraints. Suwayda is relatively distant from the capital. The historic telltale signs of regime collapse remain cracks in the ruling elites, breaks in the security services, and a leader able to unite opposing factions. None of that is in play here.   

The support of neighboring states for armed groups is also a key factor. As we explained here last month, Turkey has no interest in a fight with the Syrian government. The enclaves out of the Syrian government’s control — the Kurdish administered region in the northeast, and Idlib, run by the terrorist HTS group — won’t be conducting offensive operations against Damascus, whatever moral support they may give the demonstrators. Israel regularly launches air attacks on Syria, especially on Iranian-linked bases, but those aren’t connected to Suwayda or other Syrian armed groups. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reports that fighting between Arab tribes  and the US-backed (mostly Kurdish) Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has spread around Aleppo.   

Assad nonetheless faces a dilemma. A military response carries risks and requires resources, and Suwayda is not the only hotbed of dissent or opposition. There is also the continued if diminished threat from the Islamic State.  

Assad’s management of a fragile, divided and weak Syria, and the opposition and dissent that goes with it, may be the new normal for the foreseeable future.

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