(By Tony Badran)

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Saudi King Abdullah’s recent initiative to gather all Iraqi parliamentary coalitions for talks in Saudi Arabia may signal that Riyadh’s ill-advised policy towards Iraq has reached a dead end. Specifically, Saudi Arabia’s misguided pursuit of the Syrian mirage has, predictably, resulted in failure. This has left the Saudis trying to salvage any semblance of influence in Baghdad as Iraqi politicians reached a “tentative agreement” that allows Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to keep his post.

Two weeks ago, King Abdullah took a rather surprising step by extending a public invitation to Iraqi leaders to meet and hammer out their remaining differences in Saudi Arabia, under the aegis of the Arab League. The timing of the move revealed much about its meaning.

It’s no secret that the kingdom has viewed the incumbent Maliki as too pro-Iranian and decided to back Ayad Allawi for the post. The Saudis equally sought to enlist the Syrians in their bid to unseat Maliki, calculating, badly, that this would accentuate the alleged Iranian-Syrian divergence in Baghdad by pitting Syria in the Saudi camp against Iran’s supposed choice, Maliki.

The Saudi calculation was off on all counts. They misjudged the Iraqi domestic balance of power, as Allawi’s chances were always poor while Maliki’s, as the incumbent, were high. They also misread regional influence in Iraq, allowing themselves to be completely duped by the claims and abilities of the Syrians, who never had any serious leverage in Baghdad and who were not in a position to counter Iranian priorities there in any case.

Finally, by reading Maliki in zero-sum terms as a total asset of the Iranians, they denied themselves the ability to create pockets of influence with the Iraqi premier, which would have provided both them and Maliki more room to maneuver and balance Iranian aspirations. Instead, by rejecting Maliki and providing the Syrians with a cover to launch a campaign of terror, the Saudis merely narrowed Maliki’s options vis-à-vis the Iranians, all while falling short of unseating him.

After the Syrians realized that Maliki’s return was practically inevitable they left the Saudis in the cold and acknowledged reality. This exposed Saudi’s Syria option as the hallucination it always was. To make matters worse, the Syrians took from Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, but, as usual, failed to deliver in Baghdad – or Beirut for that matter.

And so, the Saudis may have opted to cut their losses and begin a new, more realistic chapter with Iraq in general, and with Maliki in particular. It was perhaps telling to see Abdul Rahman al-Rashed write in al-Sharq al-Awsat that “Saudi Arabia will not reject Maliki if [the Iraqis] agree on him.”

The US, seemingly waking up belatedly from its slumber, also may have played a role in prodding the Saudis in that direction. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman recently visited Riyadh and Beirut and clearly articulated the US position, which the Syrians tellingly read as an attempt to “sabotage” their supposed entente with Saudi Arabia.

Either way, the Saudi initiative also revealed the limits of their pull. For one, Iraqi reactions to the King’s initiative have been tepid to say the least. Neither Maliki’s coalition nor the Kurds expressed particular enthusiasm. The Kurds were nursing an initiative of their own under the aegis of Massoud Barzani, who said that he wouldn’t mind a collective trip to Saudi Arabia to cement “reconciliation,” but only after an agreement was reached in Iraq. Meanwhile, Maliki, already skeptical given Saudi Arabia’s explicit backing of his rival, has already secured enough Shiite backing and seems to have enough of an understanding with the Kurds to be in a position of strength, able to reach out to Sunni groups separately, thereby threatening a split in Allawi’s coalition.

Allawi, on the other hand, has floated the possibility that he’d withdraw from the power-sharing talks and lead the opposition. That, however, was apparently a negotiation tactic. With Maliki and the Kurds in agreement about the offices of Prime Minister and President respectively, the Speaker position was yesterday offered to Allawi. This gives the Saudis an ally in the coalition government, their only option for balancing perceived Iranian primacy.

In the end, the dust around the brutal regional jostling seems to be settling. The Iranians benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s ill-judged policy of alienating and attempting to weaken Maliki and have secured a minimum in the new cabinet through their ally Muqtada Sadr. The Syrians were shown to be utterly marginal, as was rather obvious from the get go. The Saudis made a critical error in their Syrian calculation and are now left to try and secure a minimum of influence.

Unfortunately, since much of this configuration was more or less predictable, the US should have exerted more effort from the outset to convince the Saudis that it would have been much more beneficial for them to reach out to Maliki earlier in the game. By abdicating an assertive leadership role due to its fixation on withdrawal, the US directly contributed to the Saudis’ missteps and to the prolonged stalemate in Baghdad. Washington must now work to secure its investment in a more crowded Iraqi kitchen and convince its allies in Riyadh to play along.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article first appeared on NOW Lebanon.

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