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Why did the Saudis and Syrians meet in Jeddah?

Saudi Arabia delayed the announcement of its own narrative about the meeting between Ali Mamluk, the head of the Syrian regime’s security agency, and Saudi officials in Jeddah. Nevertheless, it did well to have the details published in Al-Hayat newspaper at the weekend.

Why has it taken Saudi Arabia so long to make its version public, given that the Syrian government rushed to leak the news of the meeting to a Lebanese newspaper more than a week ago? The delay by one side and rush by the other reflect the truth about the political background to the positions of both parties in the meeting.

For the Saudis, both before and after the Jeddah meeting, there can be no solution in Syria if Assad remains in power. Irrespective of what might have been said about the implications of this stance, the fact remains that the tragedy of Syria proves beyond doubt that Bashar Al-Assad lacks any sense of leadership responsibility towards his people. He is the one who pushed matters to reach the current situation. His name and that of his regime have been linked to the murder machine unleashed against his people with the result that more than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed, more than half of the population have been displaced internally and abroad, and the massive destruction has not even spared the trees and land across Syria. All this happened in order to keep Assad in power.

Saudi Arabia cannot, after all that has happened, justify a change in its position about Assad staying in power; he has to go, something that all parties concerned accept is the only way out of the tragedy. The main difference between the Saudi delay and the Syrian haste about the meeting exists in the notion that there had been an initiative on the basis of which it took place, as the Saudi narrative says. The existence of this initiative in the Saudi narrative and its absence from the Syrian leak reflects the essence of the positions of the two parties.

Saudi Arabia says that the initiative centres on leaving Assad’s fate for the Syrian people to decide through presidential and parliamentary elections to be held under UN supervision. To guarantee this, the government in Riyadh proposed that all foreign parties should leave Syria; this would have to include the militias that are sponsored and armed by Iran, so that the solution sought is a purely Syrian one.

On this basis, the Saudis told the Russians during the preparations for the Jeddah meeting that they would accept the outcome of this solution no matter what it might be, provided that the Iranians accepted it too. In this case, it does not serve Riyadh’s interest to leak the news of the meeting prior to reaching a final agreement with Russian and international guarantees that would put the political solution on track, practically speaking.

The fact that Saudi Arabia came up with the initiative confirms that the Saudis agree with everyone except the “objection axis” – the Iranian support that keeps Assad in place – and that leaving his fate for the Syrian people to decide within the framework of a transitional period with international guarantees is the only political option left. It is, of course, a legal commitment to recognise the right of the Syrian people to choose who their government is led by, especially after all the tragedies they have been through under the umbrella of the Assad regime itself.

However, Assad himself is convinced, it is reported, that the issue is the exact opposite of this. The only priority, as far as he is concerned, is represented in fighting what he calls “terrorism”, or fighting those who endeavour to bring him down. In other words, the Syrian president approved of the Jeddah meeting in the hope that this would expand the umbrella under which he shelters so that it is no longer limited to Iran.

So, did Assad agree to send someone to represent him in Jeddah in the hope of persuading Saudi Arabia to become part of this umbrella or at least to adopt a neutral position? This depends largely on what the Russians told him during the preparation for the meeting.

What is striking in this context is that the Syrian leak about the meeting did not go farther than this. It did not mention that the agenda included any proposals or initiatives; the Russian version of events is also missing. At the time of writing, no Russian statement had been made to comment on the Saudi narrative or even the Syrians’. The fact that the Syrian leak mentioned no proposals would mean either that the meeting did not discuss any specific proposal or initiative, or this would just be impossible. Otherwise, why would Saudi Arabia venture into such a huge adventure? Just to have a meaningless conversation with the representative of a regime that has already lost it legitimacy both domestically and internationally, a regime about whose imminent fall everyone is talking? That would have been a free of charge adventure, which no one would embark on. The other possibility, which is closer to the truth, is that the meeting did discuss a certain initiative and that it was the sole justification for Riyadh’s agreement to receive the Syrian envoy in accordance with an understanding reached with the Russians. At least this was what the Saudi statement confirmed.

On the other hand, the omission the initiative from the Syrian leak and details of what took place in the meeting was accompanied by the absence of any denial that this was actually what happened. This would mean that the whole purpose of the leak, in such an ambiguous manner, amounted to an implicit rejection of the Saudi initiative and an effort to avoid dealing with the subject once and for all. This was expected anyway because the public rejection by Syria of an initiative that calls for letting the Syrian people decide their own destiny without foreign interference would cause a lot of embarrassment, let alone expose the truth about the regime’s claim that it relies on the people’s consent for its existence. Accepting the initiative would cast the fate of the president into the prevailing wind. The only way out for Assad would be to ignore the initiative completely and divert attention elsewhere. This would explain the campaign launched immediately after the leak was made, particularly by what is known in Lebanon as the “objection” axis media. What the campaign aimed to say in essence is that the Jeddah meeting was no more than an undeclared Saudi recognition of the victory won by this axis after Iran signed the nuclear deal with the superpowers.

However, if this is was true, what would be the point of rushing into leaking a report about an issue that was still under discussion and subject to negotiation? In addition to conveying the regime’s rejection of the Saudi initiative, there are indications that the leak sought to convey another message to the effect of denying the rumours about a change in the Russian position vis-a-vis the continuation of Assad, as well as an Iranian hint that it would be futile to continue being dragged into such proposals.

It is very likely that the statements made US President Barack Obama last Friday about a noticeable change in the Russian and Iranian positions over the future of Assad in such a way that might facilitate reaching a settlement in Syria will have reached the leadership in Damascus even before it was announced in America. It might have got there thanks to a Russian or European TV channel or perhaps via the UN special envoy to Syria.

It is sufficient in this regard to note Russia’s acceptance of the focus on leaving the future of Assad to the Syrian people within the framework of a transitional process under the supervision of the UN once all foreign parties, including the militias affiliated with Iran, have withdrawn.

The story of the Jeddah meeting has not been brought to a close yet, neither by the Syrian leak nor by the alleged victory of the “objection axis”; nor even by the Saudi announcement. It is significant to note that a meeting was held in Doha last week attended by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia, following the Syrian leak; and that the Saudi foreign minister will visit Moscow this week.

As such, both the Syrian leak and the Saudi announcement appear to be part of the conflict and part of an ongoing negotiation process over the potential political solution in Syria and Assad’s place in such a solution. The Syrian president can no longer prevent others from having a say in whether or not him staying in office would be in Syria’s best interests. As such, any talk about the victory of “objection” is out of context and has no meaning other than being some kind of rejection of what cannot be rejected, or some kind of preparation for what is yet – inevitably – to come.

Translated from Arabi21, 9 August, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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