Washington, Riyadh Divided Over Iran’s Role in Syria Solution

While Washington and Riyadh agree that the Syrian regime should go, they are very divided on a timeline and how to achieve this goal, with Iran’s role being particularly contentious.

al-monitor US President Barack Obama talks with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Nov. 11, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Yonhap/G20 Seoul Summit Media Pool/Handout.

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syrian, saudi, russia, iranian mediation of syrian crisis, diplomacy

Sep 18, 2013

Riyadh and Washington have never before disagreed over two heated regional issues at once. But with the Egyptian and the Syrian issues exploding at the same time, this seems to be the current case.

As far as Egypt is concerned, Riyadh, unlike Washington, supports the military’s return to power following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi. To neutralize the power of US and European financial aid to place pressure on the new government in Egypt, Riyadh went so far as to show willingness, along with other Gulf States, to compensate Egypt with its own aid.

Riyadh and Washington likely agree that what happened in Egypt was a military coup, and they both had the same goal, namely to maintain Egypt’s political stability. At this stage, this is an important matter of interest to Saudi Arabia in light of the collapse of both Iraq and Syria.

However, there is currently a clear disagreement between Saudi Arabia and the United States over this issue despite the fact that the Obama administration has finally accepted the idea of coexistence with the Egyptian transitional government, first because it is transitional, and second to preserve Cairo’s relationship with Israel.

As far as Syria is concerned, the disagreement between these two allies seems deeper and far more complicated. Riyadh and Washington agree on their views concerning the Syrian crisis, but aside from that, they disagree on almost everything else: priorities, policy and purpose.

That the fall of the Syrian regime is a popular demand for which tens of thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been injured or gone missing — with millions displaced outside of Syria — Saudi Arabia also believes that this fall would be of strategic interest to the region and its stability. According to Riyadh, the Bashar al-Assad regime threatens the lives of Syrian citizens and Syria’s neighbors alike. Riyadh has expressed concerns that the regime is surviving thanks to a devastating idea  — that is, a coalition of minorities — and that this is why this regime has turned into a follower of Iranian policy, which in turn aims to deepen the idea of these minorities in the region.

The Obama administration also perceives the Syrian regime as a bloody one, but it does not believe that changing it is a priority now. It would not mind if this happens, but it does not want to pay the price for this change. The Obama administration most likely believes that the developments of the crisis are capable of achieving this goal without unnecessary prices.

The only constant in Obama's position, as I pointed out, is that the way out of the Syrian crisis is only possible through a political solution that starts with a transitional period, and that this solution requires an understanding with both Russia and Iran. It is true that Obama long ago stopped calling on Syria’s president to step down, but it is also true that an understanding with Russia and Iran imposes on these two countries a condition related to this demand.

Moreover, the continuation and evolution of the understanding either means that the Obama administration accepts a solution that includes the survival of the Syrian president, or that Russia and Iran accept a solution without the Syrian president.

The signs of a US understanding with Iran in particular are numerous and remarkable. They were given by Obama himself in the midst of his campaign to convince Americans of the feasibility of a limited military strike against the Syrian regime.

Speaking to four US satellite channels last week, Obama said that Iran played a constructive role in persuading the Syrian president to refrain from using chemical weapons again. Before that, Obama, according to The Los Angeles Times, had reached out to the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani through a letter transferred by Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said during his visit to Iran late last August.

According to the newspaper, Obama proposed in the letter to the Iranian leadership “to turn a new page” in relations between the two countries, and held out a potential loosening of the economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy.

First of all, the timing of the letter is remarkable, as it came after the use of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons in Ghouta, Damascus, and the ensuing crisis.

Second, following this message, the Iranian government remained silent when Obama announced his decision to launch a military strike against the Syrian regime.

Third, after the message, Rouhani wished Jews a blessed Jewish New Year, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that Iran does not deny the Holocaust.

The fourth remarkable fact is that the Syrian president rushed to accept the Russian initiative, which means that he felt that he would be alone in facing the US should he not comply with the pressure of his allies, Russia and Iran. It also means that the Russian initiative had not emerged when US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the call on the Syrian regime to abandon its chemical weapons a few days ago in London.

On a complimentary note, Jeffrey Feltman, former US assistant secretary of state, who is an assistant to the secretary-general of the United Nations, told CNN on Sept. 12 that reaching a solution in Syria requires an understanding with Iran.

For its part, the understanding with Russia has been clear since the agreement on the Geneva course last year, and since Obama's acceptance of Russia's initiative regarding Syria’s chemical weapons.

The latest indicators of Obama’s clinging to this understanding is what was published by The New York Times on Sept. 13 about his readiness to abandon the request that the UN resolution include the use of force to ensure the commitment of the Syrian regime to hand over its entire chemical arsenal. Russia had rejected this demand in advance and threatened to use its veto power to prevent it.

Not only does Obama's acceptance of the Russian initiative reflect his commitment to an understanding with the Russians, but it also reflects his commitment to Israel's security. However, the way he accepted the initiative, and independent of other considerations related to the Syrian crisis — the future of the Syrian president in particular — turns the latter into a party to an international agreement along with the United States and Russia.The truth is that he is nothing more than a cover for another party,hidden in the agreement, namely the Iranian side.

What does the administration's position imply? Is it in favor of a political solution that ends with Assad stepping down, or one that starts with it? Should the matter be left to an understanding between Syrian parties that would negotiate over a transitional phase and agree on its nature, duration and final objective? Within the scope of the reluctance and confusion expressed by the US president — according to some — the latter seems to be inclined toward the first option.

It is clear that the required political solution may not be reached prior to addressing the issue of chemical weapons or to an understanding with Russia and Iran. This means that this solution may not be entirely at the expense of Russia or Iran. Most probably, this solution will be at the expense of Assad, who was transformed by the developments of the crisis into a burden on everyone.

Saudi Arabia does not deny the necessity of an understanding with Iran, yet it believes that this understanding must follow the solution of the Syrian crisis rather than precede it. For its part, Washington believes that this understanding should be reached simultaneously with the solution.

The difference between the two positions is clear: The primacy of the solution in this case deprives Tehran of political cards — to which it is not entitled — and thus allows Syria to return to its Arab sphere and escape the predicament of being turned, with time, into an Iranian political card at the expense of regional states. On the other hand, an understanding reached simultaneously with the solution leads directly to the opposite result.

The truth is that the position of Obama’s administration on the Syrian crisis is not surprising, and it should not be, since it is fully consistent with its declared policy toward the Middle East.

In addition to Obama's inclination toward an understanding with Iranians, his administration switched its attention from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. It is perhaps this shift that necessitated such an understanding. In all cases, the sharp and mysterious stage reached by the Syrian crisis compels Saudi Arabia to reconsider the usefulness of the reliance on the US security umbrella by the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf countries.

It is clear that the United States, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent coexistence with the Iranian influence in this country, is ignoring or underestimating its allies’ interests and political and security preoccupations. Perhaps it believes that the security umbrella is sufficient to compensate for such neglect.

Based on the foregoing, the recent positions of the Obama administration confirm Saudi Arabia's urgent need to reconsider its understanding of its national security, and thus review its position and role in its alliance with Washington.

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