Saudi-Egypt Battle for Regional Influence Over Syria
By Abdel Bari Atwan
By January, the rift in Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s approach to the crisis in Syria had begun to widen and now the two countries are to host rival Syrian opposition conferences as Cairo and Riyadh jostle for the position of most influential regional actor.
The first conference will take place in Cairo at the beginning of June under the auspices of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and has the stated aim of ending the crisis through political negotiation and putting a halt to the bloodshed. Cairo wishes to acknowledge the Syrian people’s aspirations for change, while preserving the unity of the Syrian territory and State institutions, according to a statement from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
In the middle of June, Riyadh will host the second Conference, originally scheduled to be held in Istanbul. This was announced at the conclusion of the GCC summit on Tuesday by Khalid Al-Attiyah, Qatar’s Foreign Minister.
The main differences between the two conferences are the choice of delegates and their ultimate goals.
The Cairo conference entirely excludes the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement which alienates Turkey, in particular (the ruling party in Ankara being an offshoot of the MB). The Syria National Coalition, the main recognised ‘umbrella’ for opposition groups has already said it will not attend the Cairo conference because it is cherry-picking opposition delegates rather than acknowledging the SNC as representative.
Riyadh meanwhile is likely to include Islamist delegates which it would like to see having a greater influence in any new coalition, and is also moving towards rehabilitation of the MB (which it last year declared a terrorist organisation).
Under King Salman, the Saudis have become much more assertive on the regional stage and are directly arming and funding the Syrian opposition – just as they are intervening directly in Yemen – without the use of intermediaries.
Its regional allies, Turkey and Qatar, are not happy with the prospect of Riyadh taking the driving seat while they huddle together in the back, as an Arab Foreign Minister put it to this newspaper.
Egypt is now working closely with Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq and will present the Cairo conference with a working document which aims to preserve the state institutions in Syria and envisages direct negotiations with the Assad regime which may be supported to remain in power for a temporary transition period. This, they say, is to avoid utter chaos engulfing the country.
The Saudis, Turks and Qataris, meanwhile have made a definite commitment to the removal of Assad from power at all costs and to rebuild the state guided by the will of the Syrian people. This approach envisages the dominance of moderate Islamic currents, the MB in particular, but places a strong emphasis on the MB working with and co-existing with liberal, secular and other factions to avoid repeating the Egyptian experience which ended in the elected MB government being ousted by a military coup.
It seems that the Saudi-Turkish Alliance is ready to act on its intentions with the announcement yesterday that the two countries, together with Qatar, have agreed on the necessity to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria. a Turkish official also confirmed that Riyadh and Ankara have agreed, and forged an alliance, to help the rebel forces fighting Assad.
Meanwhile differences remaining between Turkey and the US; Washington remains wary of arming and empowering radical Islamist groups in Syria. Saudi-Turkish frustration at Obama’s ‘indecision’ has brought them close together in a strategic alliance that has resulted in the recent rebel gains in Northern Syria.
Nevertheless, the Turkish Foreign Minister said on Tuesday that the US had agreed to provide air cover for the Syrian opposition forces.
The most important question is how will Syria’s major and powerful allies, Russia and Iran, react to this ramping up of the effort to depose Assad and how will it change the regional balance of power and the other regional conflicts already raging at the start of this long, hot summer in the Middle East?