Analysis: Trip by Saudi royal unlikely to herald radical change

Analysis Trip by Saudi

The Syrian Al-Watan newspaper reported on Wednesday that a two-day visit by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz was due to begin that day. The talks, Al-Watan noted, would conclude with the signing of a joint agreement on the issue of taxes. This is what is known as setting a low bar for success. The editors of Al-Watan have good reason for their caution. Despite the great importance being attached by some regional analysts to the Saudi-Syria talks, they are unlikely to herald a fundamental shift in regional diplomacy. In seeking to repair relations with Syria, Riyadh is adjusting to an existing reality. That reality is the decision by the US administration to end the policy of isolation of Damascus. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria went below the freezing point after the murder of Saudi citizen and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Syria was (and is) suspected of being behind the murder. At that time, Saudi anger at the Syrians fit with broader Western policy. In the last weeks, however, senior Syrian officials have visited Washington. Saudi Arabia sees no benefit in pursuing a regional policy in opposition to that of its protector. Iran is the key to Western and Saudi overtures toward Syria. It is believed that Syria is the "weakest link" in the Iran-led regional axis. The Saudis are extremely worried at the onward march of Iranian power in the region, and the prospect that this may be taking place soon under a nuclear umbrella. The West, and Saudi Arabia, evidently hope to initiate a process of coaxing Damascus away from Teheran. Saudi power is financial power. Riyadh could offer the economically ailing regime in Damascus a host of economic incentives in return for distancing itself from Iran. In addition to the key issue of Iran, the Saudis will be hoping to settle the long-overdue matter of Lebanese government formation. Syrian interference and exertion of influence on elements within the March 8 opposition coalition has been a key element in preventing the resolution of the crisis. The issue of Hamas-Fatah rapprochement is likely to be discussed also. The Saudis do not enjoy the sensation of appearing on the same side as Israel in a regional bloc, with the opposite bloc bidding for ownership of the Palestinian cause. They therefore have a clear interest in the success of current moves toward some form or other of rapprochement or at least blurring between the pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian Hamas enclave in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. From the Syrian point of view, Damascus has recently been involved in a heated dispute with the Maliki government in Iraq. This dispute has not been resolved. Damascus wants the Saudis to line up alongside it and against the government in Iraq in the approach to US withdrawal. The Syrians hope to gain from Saudi economic aid and investment. In addition, Damascus wants to continue the ongoing rebuilding of hegemony in Lebanon. So the wish lists of the two countries are extensive, and fairly clear. Why shouldn't the efforts bear fruit? The larger Western effort to coax Damascus away from Iran has so far produced very little. Syrian President Bashar Assad demonstratively visited Teheran after the apparently rigged presidential elections. Syrian interference in Lebanon, Iraq and among the Palestinians continues apace. With all due respect to the kingly visit, the Saudis are unlikely to succeed where the US administration has so far failed. This is because Syria, correctly, detects weakness behind the overtures from the US and its allies. Damascus sees that the American administration is flailing in its Iran policy. Its natural response in such a situation is not to compromise on fundamentals, but rather to conclude that its current approach is working, and to dig in. Damascus would have much to gain from repairing relations with the Saudis. But the cost of ceding its key regional alliance - with Teheran - is likely to be beyond its price range. This leaves two possibilities. Either the Saudis will offer a lower price - which will represent capitulation. Or the stalemate will continue with perhaps cosmetic adjustments. So while it is impossible to predict the outcome of the talks between King Abdullah and President Assad, the following assumptions may be asserted with some confidence: Whatever the precise complexion of the government which eventually emerges in Lebanon - whether or not Michel Aoun's son-in-law Gebran Bassil gets the Telecommunications Ministry and so on - the campaign to restore Syrian hegemony will continue. This will take place alongside and in alliance with the Iranian state within a state which currently wields parallel power in Lebanon. Whether or not the Egyptian brokered reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas takes place on schedule, the Syrian and Iranian influence on Palestinian politics will continue. This influence will ensure the absence of a meaningful negotiating process. And finally and most fundamentally, the Syrian alliance with Iran will not be sacrificed in order to re-build relations with Saudi Arabia, or with the West. In case anyone had failed to notice, the Iranians are currently running rings around the US in the "negotiations" over the Iranian nuclear program. It may be assumed that the Ba'athis in Damascus have not failed to notice this. Good luck with the tax agreement. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs center, IDC, Herzliya.