Palestine did not figure in these discussions, according to the diplomat. The Arab states felt it was not essential to compel Damascus to toe their line on this issue. They were also wary of forcing Palestinian resistance groups close to Syria to look elsewhere. They were – and still are – hoping the US would agree to an early declaration of a Palestinian state and, eventually, act to help bring one into being. This, to their thinking, would undermine the advocates of armed resistance, and in turn deprive Iran and Syria of a powerful card. If agreement could meanwhile be reached with Assad over Iraq and Lebanon, life would be made harder for Iran and its allies, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon.
According to the Gulf diplomat, the Syrians did attempt to make some policy changes.
As a result of a series of communications about Iraq – involving Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other countries – an understanding was reached to support Ayyad Allawi becoming prime minister. Assad initially went along with this, and Syria helped encourage various Iraqi parties to participate in the last general elections. But he then proceeded to renege on the understandings reached with Ankara and the Gulf states and joined Iran in supporting Nouri al-Maliki instead.
This was accompanied by intensive lobbying aimed at bringing all the Iraqi political groups allied to Tehran and Damascus together in a united front. It was clear that the main rationale for forming this coalition was to oppose prolonging the presence of US forces in Iraq, which Allawi had endorsed. To achieve this, the Gulf diplomat said, the Iranians had to work hard to resolve the many disputes preventing Iraqi factions – especially the Sadrist current and the Supreme Islamic Council – from agreeing to join the same government as Maliki.
With regard to Lebanon, the Gulf diplomat said, Turkey and Qatar made a major effort to persuade Saudi Arabia to put on hold the issue of the UN Special Tribunal (STL) dealing with the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. This entailed a deal under which then-premier Saad Hariri would make concessions over the STL in exchange for remaining in office. The terms were clearly spelled out in the final paper that was agreed upon. But Assad, the Gulf diplomat charged, deferred to Iran and Hezbollah and opted to oust Hariri.
The Qataris and Turks tried to patch things up. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa even paid a surprise visit to Damascus– they were already airborne when Assad learned they were coming. According to the diplomat, the pair departed from the Syrian capital under the impression that Assad would persuade Hezbollah to accept the deal. But their respective foreign ministers, Ahmet Davetoglu and Hamad bin Jasem, were then told to their surprise that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had given it the thumbs-down, and that the then-opposition would press ahead with its moves to depose Hariri, who was duly toppled.
The Gulf diplomat had little to say about the nature of contacts with Syria in the immediate aftermath of these events. But he indicated that things took a new turn after protests broke out in towns across Syria and it became clear that the regime was unable to contain the situation. It was decided to devise, and forcefully pursue, a plan aimed at forcing Assad to make concessions on two fronts. First, to share power with an expanded array of political forces – the Turks and Qataris made clear in their correspondence and discussions that this meant the Muslim Brotherhood. Secondly, to put Syria’s foreign policy in abeyance, pending its reformulation to reflect the new political order.
Syria’s response was to halt all further contacts. Assad saw these stipulations as American dictates.He told a number of Arab and other visitors that these same demands had previously been conveyed to him directly by the US, and also via Europeans.
The senior Gulf diplomat left many questions unanswered. But it is safe to say that the US-European-Gulf axis will continue piling the political, security and economic pressure on the regime in Syria, and that it is likely to go further.
Ibrahim al-Amine is editor-in-chief of al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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