Washington and Riyadh Fail to Bridge Syria Gap

Washington and Riyadh Fail to Bridge Syria Gap

The attempts to make the representatives of Syria’s government and opposition get together at the round table on January 25 have failed. There was no agreement on the list of opposition invitees. Probably, bridging the gap between opposition groups was the main goal of US State Secretary John Kerry’s unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia. 

The Saudi Kingdom wants to take advantage of its relationship with the United States in its stand-off with Iran. Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, deviated from the commonly accepted rules of diplomatic etiquette in his comments on Tehran. At the joint conference with the US State Secretary he said Iran was behind almost all Middle East conflicts. He voiced these accusations against the background of Riyadh being the main supporter of Syria’s armed opposition. Saudi Arabia also leads the military intervention of the Persian Gulf Arab states against Yemen. 

On one hand, Saudi Arabia remains to be a US strategic partner. On the other hand, friendship with Riyadh creates problems for United States’ image of a country adamant in its determination to protect democracy in the Middle East. There are other things the United States does not like about the Saudi’s foreign policy. The Kingdom tried to prevent the lifting of sanctions against Iran. It did not work. The White House did not side with Riyadh in this effort. Saudi Arabia kept away from joining the US-led coalition. It continues to be hostile to Iraq – the country under US influence. 

Riyadh is doing its best to stymie the inter-Syria dialogue even before it has started. Saudi Arabia wants two Syria’s opposition delegations to take part in the negotiations. One of them has been formed by Riyadh. Washington is not happy about allies standing in its way. The Saudi King and his retinue consider President Obama to be a lame duck. Saudis play for time hoping to get more freedom of action when a new President takes office in the United States. 

The parties did not reach any agreements during the Kerry’s visit. No wonder. The US has not fulfilled any of its promises since the May 2015 summit of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. The plans to create regional air defense, new large-scale arms supplies and reaching agreement on the defense of Persian Gulf Arab states – all these issues have been hung in the air. 

Many things have happened since the Persian Gulf Arab states summit. The Iran nuclear deal has been reached. Tehran has been invited to become part of the Syrian conflict peace management process. The United States and the European Union have lifted their unilateral sanctions against Iran. Riyadh is hardly happy about these recent developments. It knows well that practically all US presidential race runners believe Obama’s Middle East policy to be erroneous. They promise to get tougher on Iran. Will it mean the end of compromise reached by Washington and Tehran  this year? Will the US serve Saudi’s interests? Hardly so.

The US State Secretary has insisted that efforts to bring peace to Syria, at least, would not suffer from the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He is quite right meaning the negotiation process should continue under the UN auspices in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution № 2254. 

During his stay in Riyadh, Secretary Kerry met with Dr Riad Hijab, the General Coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, and other HNC delegates representing the Syrian opposition in the upcoming negotiations. According to the US State Department statement, «They discussed the upcoming UN-sponsored negotiations regarding a political transition in Syria and all agreed on the urgent need to end the violence afflicting the Syrian people».

Riad Hijab, Syria's former Prime Minister and the head of the Supreme Negotiations Committee and de facto opposition’s chief negotiator for the planned Geneva III negotiation process. His views were made clear during the meeting with the UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura on January 6. Back then, he confirmed a delegation for the upcoming negotiations had been assigned; its members were selected on the basis of qualification and eligibility, and in line with professional standards in order to meet the magnitude of the challenges faced by the Syrian people. 

He expressed his full readiness to cooperate with the international envoy to take all necessary measures to invigorate the political process and ensure its success. He also pointed out the need to adhere to formal channels to communicate directly with the General Coordinator of the Supreme Commission for Negotiations.

A Sunni Muslim, in July, 2012 Riad Hijab, Former governor of Quneitra and Latakia governorates, was appointed Prime Minister by Syrian President Assad. He holds a doctorate (PhD) in agricultural engineering. Western media used to call him a supporter of Bashar Assad and a key figure in the governing party. After his resignation in 2012, Riad Hijab and his family left Syria for Jordan. Today he holds meetings with the US State Secretary and many West European politicians, for instance the Foreign Minister of Germany. 

Why is Riyadh not happy with Riad Hijab? The statements made by Hijab during his meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier provide an explanation. The Syrian opposition leader concluded that his visit comes as a part of efforts to persuade the international community and ensure a negotiating atmosphere conducive of genuine peace-building; cessation of combat, formation of an international monitoring and supervisory mechanism to ensure the commitment of various parties, collaboration on the removal of all foreign forces, securing border crossings and supply routes, provision of safe zones, delivery of aid to affected areas, and other measures.

If other parties to the Syrian conflict peace management process agree with this point of view, Saudi Arabia will lose its leverage over Syria. 

On January 25, Staffan de Mistura played down the expectations for Geneva talks, predicting «a lot of posturing and walkouts». He said on January 25 that he planned to issue invitations on the next day with indirect «proximity» talks between the Syrian sides to begin on 29 January. They are expected to go on for six months. «It will be uphill anyway», he predicted, apparently seeking to lower expectations of progress.

Speaking earlier the same day, Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed the delay as «just tensions» and told reporters traveling with him in Vientiane, Laos, he felt «positive» about the process.

«We've all agreed with that, and we're not trying to do anything except start», Kerry said of the ambitious process. «So I just don't buy into this public back-and-forth», Kerry added. «It doesn't serve any purpose».

On January 26, Syrian opposition officials are to meet in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to discuss their final position. Will they manage to resist the mounting pressure from the international community to attend the talks without preconditions? Will Saudi Arabia find ways to further obstruct the negotiation process? Whatever takes place in the coming hours, the world is in for moving along a long and winding road with a lot of snags on the way before it makes progress to end the Syrian crisis.