Saudi Arabia, Iran Barred from Syria Conference

Saudi Arabia and Iran will both be excluded from the Geneva conference on Syria, to be held on Saturday June 30. Haifa Zaaiter writes that the countries exclusion can be explained by a tit-for-tat deal struck between Russia and the US. But, Zaaitar writes, Saudi Arabia's participation would not add much since Qatar will act as its proxy at the meeting.

al-monitor  Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

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Jun 29, 2012

After long days filled with debate, speculation and tug-of-war over which countries would be participating in the Geneva conference on Syria and what their agendas will be, the day of the United Nations-Arab envoy led “Syrian Action Group” conference has arrived.

On June 29, the five permanent members of the Security Council, along with Turkey, the European Union, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, will meet to discuss ways of "ensuring the implementation of the six-point plan and agreeing on the directions and principles of the political transition," said Annan.

The Saudis, however, will not join their allies in Geneva. They were disqualified through international consensus, along with Iran. The reason’s behind some parties' reservations regarding Tehran's participation in the conference are quite obvious — the West’s stance on Iran is clear. However, the fact that Riyadh was excluded is quite remarkable. Riyadh has been clearly engaged  — along with the United States — in the bloody conflict that has raged for more than a year and a half.

What may be the reasons behind the exclusion of the Kingdom? How will this affect the Saudi position? And how could the US accept such a decision? Was Russia involved? While this “sudden announcement" has raised many questions on the part of observers, Saudi officials have remained completely silent. This is normal for Riyadh, which is known for its "cautious calm" stance.

In order to explore why Annan accepted to hold the conference without both Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mohammed al-Suhaimi, a Saudi writer who is closely following the Syrian issue, told As-Safir, "It is clear that this is a game of roles between the US and Russia; Washington agrees on excluding Saudi Arabia (upon Russia's request) in return for Russia's approval on the exclusion of Iran."

"Moscow wants to send a message to Riyadh (as well as to its allies) that it blames the Saudis for the explosion of the Syrian conflict given that they are providing fighters with weapons,” he said.

Suhaimi explained that the US accepted the deal because it realized that by excluding Saudi Arabia, it would be able to "ease direct confrontation without affecting [Saudi Arabia’s] position as long as Qatar can fill the void and hold the stick from the middle (an Arabic expression meaning 'have it both ways')." This doesn't even mention the fact that Turkey’s presence in Geneva was likely going to annoy Riyadh given the indirect competition between the two allies for Sunni leadership.

Mahjoub al-Zweiri, a specialist in the contemporary history of Iran and the Middle East, has a different viewpoint. According to him, the issue of the presence of Saudi Arabia was never an option, "the country [Annan] wanted [at the conference] was Iran.”

“The conference was Annan’s idea. He tried to react to the claims of all parties — from the West, to the Russians to the Syrian Government. The Syrian regime was opposed to Saudi Arabia’s participation from the very beginning,” said Zweiri.

He explains that Saudi Arabia is directly involved in the Syrian crisis. Because its stance is already clear, its participation in the conference will not change the course of things, especially given that the “US and Qatari positions are united, while an Iranian presence was going to be necessary to support the position of Russia and China.”

According to Zweiri, the final settlement was that “Annan would brief the Iranians about the conference’s outcome, and would take into consideration their help in finding a solution.”

Zweiri believes that the conference is unlikely to produce an effective solution regarding Annan’s proposal for a national unity government, especially seen as the EU, the US and regional powers are convinced that there is no future for the Syrian regime. “However, there is still a possibility that Annan will manage to persuade the international community of his idea,” said Zweiri.

According to New York Times, the exclusion of Iran and Saudi Arabia is considered a concession on the part of  Annan. The American newspaper added that “Annan, who had said he wanted the Iranians to be part of such a meeting, offered no explanation for why they were not invited.”

The newspaper quoted diplomats in Geneva as saying that “the compromise formula, was to limit attendance from the Middle East to countries that held a position with the Arab League: Iraq as head of the league’s summit meeting, Kuwait as head of its Council of Foreign Ministers and Qatar as head of its follow-up committee on Syria.”

Regarding Russia and the US position towards the exclusion of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the New York Times reported that the “action group” will include “geo-political, regional and international measures to address the political stalemate that led to the Syrian crisis.” The newspaper added that “the parties’ projects [for resolving the Syria crisis] contradict each other, and no party has the power to implement its own project.”

Zweiri also confirmed this fact, saying that it has become imperative for the international community to find a solution for the bloody Syrian crisis that has been dragging on for months. Should Annan’s conference fail, Syria will lose its last hope for a solution.

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