AP: When the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt last had Syria's president alone in a room, earlier this month, it was classic "good cop-bad cop."
The Associated Press
By SALAH NASRAWI
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — When the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt last had Syria's president alone in a room, earlier this month, it was classic "good cop-bad cop."
From Egypt came angry ultimatums — from the Saudi king, soothing and lucrative promises, according to an Egyptian official and a Saudi royal adviser. All with the goal of peeling Syria away from Iran.
The Arab world's top powers are eager to block regional rival Iran's influence in the Middle East. Their key for doing so is to woo Iran's Arab ally Syria, so they have begun engaging Damascus after years of shunning it in anger over what they see as its role in fueling turmoil around the Mideast.
The administration of President Barack Obama is also starting to open up to Damascus, which Washington treated as a pariah for the past eight years because of its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has been enjoying the new attention. But Damascus has its own agenda, hoping in particular for an economic boost and a peace deal with Israel. It is also reluctant to give up its ties to Iran and Arab militants, because those alliances give it the power to influence events in the region — from Lebanon and the Israeli-Arab conflict, to Iraq.
A gauge of Arab countries' headway with Syria will come on Monday, when Arab leaders gather for their annual summit in the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar. "Arab reconciliation" will top the agenda at the Doha gathering, Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Heli said this week. The venue is notable because Qatar has also been at odds with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for its close ties with Syria, Iran and Hamas.
The Saudis and the Egyptians are deeply worried that Shiite-dominated Iran is seeking to fuel Islamic radicalism and establish itself as regional superpower. They blame Syria for helping Iran.
Egypt has been particularly angry because it has been trying to mediate a series of interlocking deals after Israel's assault on Gaza this year — for a truce and prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, and for a unity government between Hamas and U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. An agreement could open the door for negotiations on a final Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
But weeks of painstaking mediation have gone nowhere, and Cairo has accused Syria and Iran of encouraging Hamas to dig in.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have an ulterior motive. With Obama also pursuing dialogue directly with Iran, Washington's Arab allies want to make sure their interests are not left out if the United States and Iran reach any reconciliation.
In early March, Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met Syria's Assad in a mini-summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, hoping to patch up the rift.
During the meeting, oil-rich Saudi Arabia offered Assad a financial package to offset Iranian aid to Syria, if it breaks with Tehran, a Saudi royal adviser told The Associated Press. Abdullah also promised Assad that the kingdom will mobilize Arab support to back Syria in negotiations for a peace deal with Israel, aimed at winning back the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967.
"What we said was, 'Come back to the Arab fold, and after that everything you need can come,'" said the Saudi official, who was briefed on the March 11 meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks.
Assad had a further condition: Arab help to ensure than an international tribunal does not name Assad or his close associates in the case of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Saudi adviser said. A U.N.-mandated court in the Netherlands is due to conduct trials over the assassination, though it has not yet named suspects. Many in Lebanon accuse Syria of being behind Hariri's slaying, a charge Damascus denies.
Holding out, Assad proposed that the sides find a way to "manage their differences" — basically, agree to disagree civilly.
But Egypt's Mubarak took a tough tone, pressing for Assad to commit immediately to Egyptian and Saudi demands. He bluntly warned Assad that there would be no generous Arab overtures until Syria shows a real change of behavior, an Egyptian official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door talks.
The mini-summit appeared on the verge of collapsing. But the emir of Kuwait, who was also attending, stepped in and persuaded the two sides to continue talks in the coming weeks, said the Egyptian official, who was also briefed on the meeting.
So far, there has been no sign of a breakthrough. On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem visited Iran and proclaimed that ties between Damascus and Tehran were "excellent."
Furthermore, the Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas have since broken up without an agreement.
"It's very difficult for the Palestinian reconciliation to succeed with the ongoing Arab conflicts," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said last week, in a veiled criticism of Syria's and Iran's support for Hamas.
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, took a tough tone when Iran's foreign minister visted Riyadh on March 15, implicitly telling Iran not to meddle in Arab affairs. "Although we appreciate the Iranian concern in Arab issues, from our point of view, this should be conducted through the legitimate Arab doorways," Saud said.
Many Arab countries share Egypt and Saudi Arabia's worries that Obama's outreach to Iran could end up boosting Tehran's influence. The Saudis are urging Obama to be cautious — and to keep Arab nations in mind.
"You can have a bargain with Iran, but you do not have a grand bargain without us. So you can talk as much as you can (with Iran) but can't be sure how useful it is going to be. They (the Americans) need a lot of help," said the Saudi adviser.
"They (Iranians) will milk you for everything until they start behaving in a way which is positive," he said.