The Saudis are getting mad


Saudi-Syria relations have sunk to new lows, with a Saudi spokesman yesterday issuing a stinging rebuttal to Syria's vice president, Farouq al-Sharaa, who earlier this week had criticized the Saudis, describing them as "paralyzed." Here in Beirut, Syria's allies have been particularly relentless in heaping scorn on the Saudis of late.

The isolated Syrians have been trying to get their foot back into the mainstream of Arab politics, two-and-a-half years after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. But the Saudis aren't playing ball. They didn't attend a security conference held in Damascus just over a week ago, and have refused to coordinate regional policy within the context of a Syrian-Egyptian-Saudi triangle, as in the past.

Now the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassa has published a story (link in Arabic) listing the three conditions that Saudi King Abdullah imposed on Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Riyadh Arab League summit last March for Syria to break out of its isolation. Al-Seyassa is a notoriously anti-Syrian paper, and not always reliable. But it also happens to be an accurate mouthpiece for King Abdullah.

The three conditions were: non-intervention in domestic Lebanese affairs once and for all, and an end to incitement against the government of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora; an end to involvement in Palestinian affairs, the shaping of Hamas' policies, and the arming of the group; and a reduction in Syrian cooperation with Iran which has allowed Iran to set up bases on Syrian territory near the Lebanese and Iraqi borders.

The article went on to note that Abdullah set down his conditions in the presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as a witness.

The deterioration in Saudi-Syrian relations will have significant implications for American policy in the Middle East. First of all it will only make a regional consensus on Iraq more complicated, with the additional complicating factor that the Saudis now regard Syrian collaboration with Iran almost as an existential threat to their regime.

Second, it means that U.S. engagement of Syria or Iran, for all the brouhaha the idea has raised in Washington, will only further alarm the Saudis, making it more likely that they will continue to support and even probably escalate their backing for the Sunnis in Iraq.  

Third, it means that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will continue to fight tooth and nail against Syria and Iran (and Hezbollah) in Lebanon, meaning the country will remain a front line for regional animosities.

And fourth, it means that the Palestinian issue, precisely because it has become a Middle Eastern tennis ball between the Americans, Saudis, Syrians and Iranians, will remain as deadlocked as ever, regardless of how much assistance Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas receives from the international community. Where there is deadlock, there is also a tendency of states to abandon ship. If nothing happens on the Palestinian front, expect the Europeans to begin increasingly calling for a dialogue with Hamas, against the wishes of the Bush administration.