Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel held a secret meeting to coordinate a plan which would see Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad reintegrated into the Arab League in an effort to weaken Turkey's position in the region.
Senior intelligence officials from the three countries – which do not hold formal diplomatic relations – attended a secret meeting in an unnamed Gulf capital last month, according to "Gulf sources with knowledge of the meeting" who spoke to Middle East Eye (MEE).
The officials agreed to the meeting in order to discuss a number of regional issues, among which were the fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, the perceived threat of Turkey and the re-integration of Syria into the Arab League.
During the meeting it was agreed that Turkey should be seen as the major regional threat, with the director of Israel's intelligence agency Mossad, Yosi Cohen, telling his Saudi and Emirati counterparts that: "Iranian power is fragile. The real threat comes from Turkey." MEE claims it is this which drove the concerned parties to discuss reintegrating Syria into the Arab League – from which it was suspended in 2011 for failing to halt its crackdowns on Arab Spring protesters – seeing Syria as a counterbalance to Turkey's power. Citing a Gulf official briefed on the discussions, MEE explained:
They [the intelligence chiefs] did not expect Bashar [Al-Assad] to break relations with Iran, but they wanted Bashar to use the Iranians rather than be used by them. The message was: 'Return back to how your father [former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad] treated the Iranians, at least as an equal at the table, rather than subservient to Iranian interests'.
MEE also revealed that it was this Saudi-UAE-Israel meeting which sparked a "flurry of visits" to Syria throughout December, including the visit of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir to Syrian capital Damascus and a visit by the deputy head of Emirati intelligence, Ali Al-Shamsi. Shortly afterwards, Bahrain and the UAE announced they would re-open their embassies in Damascus.
Though a meeting to discuss Syria re-joining the Arab League was slated to take place on 6 January, it was postponed at the last minute until today. Other countries have also expressed an interest in reintegrating Syria, with Algeria said to be pressuring Tunisia – where March's Arab League meeting will convene – to make the invitation. Just yesterday it emerged that Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq will present a proposal on Syria's return to the organisation, with the support of Egypt.
This is not the first time it has emerged that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been working to aid Al-Assad. On Monday it was revealed that the Gulf states assisted Al-Assad's regime in assassinating leaders of the Syrian opposition, despite the fact that they had previously backed opposition fighters in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, which has been ongoing since 2011. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are said to have aided the killing of 80 opposition fighters between 2012 and 2014, revealing their locations to the Syrian regime so it could carry out bombing raids. Among those killed were prominent opposition leaders, including Zahran Alloush – commander of Jaish Al-Islam – and Hassan Aboud and Khalid Al-Suri of Ahrar Al-Sham.