October 7, 2008


Syria plays hardball with the Saudis (Sami Moubayed, 10/07/08, Asia Times)

One of the first to realize that the Syrians are overpowering the Saudis in Lebanon was Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a strongman of the March 14 Coalition. He realized that the US-imposed isolation of Syria has crumbled, after Bashar Al Assad's visit to Paris in July 2008. The Turks and the Qataris are firmly behind Syria in its indirect peace talks with Israel, a strong counterbalance to the Saudis, which might result in a peace treaty as of mid-2009. If that happens, the Hariri Tribunal (on which the Saudis had placed high hopes) will be consigned to history.

The US administration, wrapped in controversy in Iraq, is clearly uninterested in regime change in Syria, as was the case several years ago. Their ally, Abdul-Halim Khaddam, has by all accounts ruined himself by betting on the wrong horse in 2005. What's worse, the Saudi-trained and funded March 14 forces were defeated on the streets of Beirut in May, when they tried to confront Hezbollah.

Within hours, Hezbollah rounded up all militiamen on the payroll of Saudi Arabia and forced the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora to back down on legislation taken earlier against Hezbollah. It was clear: the US and Saudi Arabia lost the war for Beirut, and Syria and Iran won.

When fighting shifted to the Druze villages on Mount Lebanon, Hezbollah fighters encircled Jumblatt's home - despite all the backing he had from the Saudis - but did not invade it. He got on the telephone with speaker Nabih Berri (who is pro-Syrian and strongly allied to Iran) and said, "Tell Sayed Hassan Nasrallah I lost the battle and he wins. So let's sit and talk to reach a compromise."

Last month, Jumblatt went further, accusing Hariri in the Beirut daily al-Akhbar of building a militia and allying himself with Islamic hardliners. Speaking about the arms of the Hariri team, Jumblatt said, "To form a militia today? To face whom? Hezbollah? This is crazy."

More recently, what worried both the Saudis and Jumblatt was the semi-rapprochement that started developing between Syria and the US. Last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at her request, and discussed a variety of issues related to the Middle East.

That was the second meeting between both ministers since May 2007. According to the Syrian minister, Rice showed willingness to support Syrian-Israeli peace, a u-turn in the American position, which until now, has been uninterested in the indirect talks taking place in Turkey.

This week, the Doha-based al-Jazeera news agency quoted American "sources" saying that they were reconsidering their policies towards Syria during what remains of the George W Bush administration. A "senior US official" was quoted repeating exactly that on Israeli radio, adding that this would lead to the lifting of sanctions imposed on Syria by the Bush administration since 2003.

The Syrians believe, although they have not said it bluntly, that the Saudis are furious at Syria's repeated diplomatic successes. Eager for vengeance, they are now financing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon to strike at both Hezbollah and Syria and have not yet digested the outcomes of May 2008.

As true friends of Israel we ought not enable their relationship with the regime in Syria.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2008 7:18 AM
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