BEIRUT (Reuters) - Bottling its irritation, Saudi Arabia is mending ties with Syria to restore a semblance of Arab harmony before a summit later this month, calm regional tensions and nudge Damascus toward cooling its alliance with Tehran.
After intensive advance diplomacy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will visit Riyadh on Wednesday, along with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, the state Saudi Press Agency reported.
While open to Arab detente, Assad has shown no readiness to sever a bond with non-Arab Iran that has lasted 29 years.
“Saudi Arabia’s top priority is to confront Iran and its agenda in the Arab world. The Saudis want to weaken Tehran’s cards in the Arab world, thus the new approach toward Syria,” said an Arab official with close ties to the Saudis.
“They know it’ll be very difficult to break the ties between Syria and Iran, but by showing the Syrians what they have to gain if they return to the Arab fold, they hope to weaken that alliance,” added the official, who asked not to be identified.
On its part, Syria is keen to cast off any remnants of the diplomatic isolation it endured after the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri, a Saudi citizen and protege. Damascus denied any involvement in the killing, now the focus of an international tribunal that began work this month.
Furious with Saudi Arabia and Egypt for joining Western pressure that forced it to quit Lebanon in 2005, Syria hardened its alignment with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Palestinian Hamas militants in shared hostility to Israel and the United States and its conservative Arab allies.
Saudi Arabia tempered its anti-Syrian stance after Damascus backed last year’s Qatari-mediated deal among Lebanese factions and the new U.S. administration spoke of engaging with Damascus.
“It’s about teamwork, concerted Arab action,” Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, said.
Syria’s presence “back in the team” would enable Lebanon’s election in June to take place without bloodshed, promote Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation talks and advance prospects for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, Khashoggi argued.
He said Saudi Arabia wanted Syria to cooperate on Lebanon, where the two countries support opposing political blocs, and think of its neighbor “as an equal, not a subordinate.”
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a foe of Syria’s role, told Reuters last week that a thaw in Saudi-Syrian ties could reduce communal tensions and promote stability in his country.
“HALF-MEN” SLUR RANKLES
Saudi-Syrian reconciliation efforts have accelerated before an Arab summit expected to take place in Doha on March 30.
But a senior Arab diplomat in Riyadh said it was no easy matter to heal wounds that are personal as well as political.
“Leaders of Gulf Arab countries took great offence at being called ‘half-men’,” he said, recalling an insult leveled by Assad after Israel’s 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“Syria will want to take things extremely slowly and cautiously to make sure it does not lose Iran,” the diplomat added, tracing much of Assad’s popularity in the Arab street to his hard-line rhetoric and support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
At the same time, Syria cannot ignore the Saudi overtures or those of U.S. President Barack Obama, who has softened the animosity shown by his predecessor toward Damascus and Tehran.
Two visiting U.S. officials reported finding “a lot of common ground” during talks in the Syrian capital on Saturday.
“It is our view that Syria can play an important and constructive role in the region,” acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman declared.
He also said the United States wanted “forward momentum” on peace talks between Syria and Israel when both sides were ready.
Damascus halted indirect talks with Israel after the latter launched an offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in December.
Syria also urged Arab states to withdraw their collective, Saudi-inspired peace offer to Israel, which has spurned it.
Saudi Arabia wants to defuse the Arab-Israeli dispute partly to deprive Iran and Islamist militants of a potent rallying cry to stir popular resentment against U.S.-allied Arab governments.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal called last week for Arabs to agree on how to tackle the “Iranian challenge” on the nuclear issue, Gulf security and “penetration by some outside parties of Arab affairs in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.”
Any erosion of Syria’s ties with Iran could serve this goal, but Damascus is unlikely to desert its ally without substantial gains in the complex interplay of Middle Eastern politics.
“The Saudis want to loosen the relationship between Syria and Iran, but I doubt they assume they can terminate it in any fundamental sense,” said Neil Partrick, a Middle East expert at the American University of Sharjah.
Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Riyadh, Nadim Ladki and Tom Perry in Beirut, and Khaled Oweis in Damascus; Editing by Samia Nakhoul