Monday, March 28, 2011

Syria gets an unexpected hand of friendship

Syrian leadership is receiving a helping hand from two unlikely sources in the region to make an orderly transition of reforms. No, Iran isn't one of them. It's Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey's role is expected as much as the Saudi role would have come as a pleasant surprise to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkish PM Recept Erdogan spoke to Assad twice over the weekend urging swift reforms. By Erdogan's account, "We advised Mr. Assad that responding to the people’s years-old demands positively, with a reformist approach, would help Syria overcome the problems more easily." Erdoğan said he advised al-Assad to “answer the people’s calls with a reformist, positive approach. I did not get a ‘no’ answer. We have a border of 800 kilometers [with Syria] and we have family relations. We cannot remain silent.”
The Syrian president did not dismiss his calls for reform, Erdoğan said, adding that he expected Assad himself to publicly announce reform plans “either today or tomorrow [Monday or Tuesday].” Erdogan noted that Syria is working on reforms, including lifting emergency rule and restrictions on political parties. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also spoke to his Syrian counterpart following Erdoğan’s phone conversation with Assad, telling Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem that Turkey was ready to contribute to the reform process. Interestingly, Erdogan dispatched Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan to Damascus on Sunday, presumably to share assessment regarding the roots of the disturbances in Syria. Turkey will be greatly worried about the Kurdish separatists or Al Qaeda-type elements exploiting instability in Syria.
But the political bombshell came in the nature of a phone call Assad received from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Monday. According to the Syrian account of the conversation, King Abdullah stressed his country's standing along with Syria to "foil the plot". Syrian news agency SANA reported that the Saudi ruler conveyed "support to Syria in the face of conspiracies targeting its security and stability."
The Saudi move is extremely significant. It couldn't have been made in isolation. A degree of prior consultation by RIyadh with the US cannot be ruled out. Hillary Clinton also openly ruled out a Libya-type western intervention in Syria. The Saudi-US thinking seems to be to build political capital with Assad at a time of trouble and thereby nudge him away from his strategic link-up with Tehran. Given the highly uncertain political climate within Iraq, US would have reason to be worried about volatility in Syria, which is an important gateway for extremist elements entering Iraq. Equally, Saudis would want Syria to retain its level of influence in Lebanon, as any diminution of Syrian influence over Hezbollah may work to Iran's advantage. The present political dispensation in Lebanon is essentially an outcome of Syrian-Saudi concord. Over and above, Saudis (and US) would be apprehensive that Jordan wouldn't be able to avoid taking a hit if there is a violent regime change in Damascus. The bottom line for Riyadh anyway would be to try to leverage the present situation to loosen up Syria-Iran axis. US would concur with any Saudi effort in this direction.

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