Saudi Arabia's steps to end its bitter dispute with Syria appear
to be aimed at unifying Arabs against a trio of growing concerns:
Iran's spreading influence in the region, the uncertainties of a US
drawdown in Iraq, and the prospect of a right-wing government in
Saudi outreach follows Washington's tentative reengagement with
Damascus, a move that diplomats hope will have more success in
weaning Syria away from its Iranian ally than the Bush
administration's policy of isolation.
"The Saudis want to get Syria away from Iran," says Andrew
Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy. "Washington's style is to try engagement as well, so the
Arabs are trying their best to get Syria on board."
After a month of shuttle diplomacy, Saudi King Abdullah, Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and
Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah will meet for a fence-mending
summit in Riyadh Wednesday.
The rift between Syria and Saudi Arabia followed the
assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese former prime
minister who was close to the kingdom's ruling family. The Syrian
regime remains a leading suspect in the assassination, although it
The Bush administration, angered by Syrian meddling in Iraq and
support for anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, imposed sanctions and
froze ties with Damascus in 2005. In response, Syria strengthened
its relationship with Iran and sat out President Bush's final term.
The result: an Arab world split between Western-backed Sunni
states (Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and allies of Shiite Iran (Syria,
Lebanon's Hezbollah, and Palestinian Hamas).
Relations between Egypt and Syria have also been cold, the result
of tension between Cairo and Tehran. In December, Mr. Mubarak
reportedly criticized Iran's expanding influence, saying: "The
Persians are trying to swallow up the Arab states."
Arab fears of Iranian expansionism were compounded by recent
unrest by Shiites in the Gulf. In December and January, Shiites
rioted in Bahrain following the arrest of several Shiites on
terrorism charges. In January, Saudi Shiites launched rare
demonstrations after an altercation between police and Shiite
worshippers in Medina.
The unrest does not appear to have been stirred by Iran, but does
serve to warn Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that marginalized Shiites
could provide an opening for Iranian penetration.
However, a return to traditional diplomacy by the Obama
administration appears to have encouraged Saudi Arabia to bridge the
rift with Syria. At an economic summit in Kuwait in January, King
Abdullah invited the Syrian and Egyptian leaders to a lunch at his
private residence. That ice-breaker was followed by reciprocal
visits by the Saudi and Syrian foreign ministers that paved the way
for the Riyadh summit.
"I do think that one of the reasons Saudi Arabia wanted to patch
up with Damascus is that it realized that there was no sense in
pursuing a policy that had repeatedly failed since 2006, being on
bad terms with Damascus," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political