What Saudi-Iranian rapprochement means for Syria

Iran and Saudi are regional enemies

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal – formerly Iran’s number one enemy – has recently engaged in rapprochement with the Islamic Republic at the instigation of his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Riyadh has issued an invitation for Jarif to visit the Kingdom and begin a dialogue on several controversial issues, writes Abdelbari Atwan.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday foreign ministers from the eleven remaining “Friends of Syria” countries travelled to London for a meeting. Led by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and attended by five Arab states (KSA, Egypt, UAE, Qatar, and Jordan) several important issues were on the agenda including the decommissioning of Assad’s remaining chemical weapons, whether or not to support the “moderate” opposition, and how to facilitate the safe passage of humanitarian aid.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to cancel the requested emergency meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers to be held in Riyadh last Monday, raised many question marks.

It is clear that the Saudi authorities have decided to abandon their three year old policy on Syria and filter out the legacy of Prince Bandar bin Sultan. His policy of establishing and supporting militant Islamic groups to speed up the overthrow of the Syrian regime as soon as possible produced exactly the opposite results, and the Kingdom found itself overtly supporting “terrorism.”

On Wednesday a Saudi Royal Decree replaced Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, Deputy Defence Minister and brother of Prince Bandar, with Prince Khaled bin Bandar bin Abdel Aziz, Governor of Riyadh, in a major shake up of the Saudi Defense Ministry.

Saudi rapprochement with Iran reflects a mutual desire to find a mutually acceptable approach on controversial regional issues, Syria first and foremost, but also Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain.

“Friends of Syria”

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This surprise turn in Saudi policy will muddy the waters even further where the Friends of Syria are concerned and cause deep frustration for the Syrian opposition.

It is clear that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has decided to ignore the Geneva process and is going ahead with Presidential elections which he will inevitably win. The first Geneva conference agreed to create a transitional government which did not include Assad. That is now dead in the water.

The international community has failed to resolve the Syria crisis
The international community has failed to resolve the Syria crisis

The Syrian regime has regained full control of the city of Homs – the third largest city in Syria – and continues to make progress on other military fronts, following armed clashes between Islamic opposition groups.

So The Friends of Syria’s priorities have now changed, and regime change is no longer the priority. Instead, the group of nations is mainly concerned with halting the rising power of Islamic militant groups in Syria, which present the greatest danger and threaten the interests, stability and security of the State of Israel.

SNC leader Ahmed Al-Jarba visited Washington last week and requested ManPad, shoulder launched, anti-aircraft missiles. The response was not addressed at the concluding press conference but it is highly unlikely that Washington would now risk such sophisticated weapons – which could pose a threat to commercial aircraft – falling into the hands of al-Qaeda type groups.

We would not be surprised if this London meeting of Friends of Syria is the last or penultimate at best. They have exhausted their purposes, and failed to achieve the objectives for which it was created.

There is one possible remedy for the current stagnation and that is to invite Iran to participate in another Geneva conference. It was excluded from the first two meetings. We have said and continue to say that a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis can only be achieved through negotiation. Rapprochement between KSA and Iran suggests that this might be moving closer.

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