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Asad’s Visit: Saudi-Syrian Rapprochement Back on Track?

Posted on 12 May 2011 by hashimilion

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 RIYADH 001303

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/29/2009
TAGS: PREL PGOV SA SY LE TU
SUBJECT: ASAD’S VISIT: SAUDI-SYRIAN RAPPROCHEMENT BACK ON TRACK?

REF: A. BEIRUT 1079
¶B. RIYADH 1154

RIYADH 00001303 001.2 OF 002

Classified By: DCM Susan L. Ziadeh,
reasons 1.4 (B) and (D)

SUMMARY
——–

¶1. (C) Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s unexpected
attendance at the King Abdullah University of Science and
Technology (KAUST) opening, and his lengthy meeting with King
Abdullah on the margins, has encouraged speculation about
further Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and its potential regional
implications. Post contacts describe media reports of the
meeting as largely accurate, noting that Lebanese government
formation, Palestinian reconciliation, and Asad’s invitation
to King Abdullah to visit Damascus dominated the agenda.
They confirm that Turkish mediation played a role in bringing
about the visit, and suggest that the Saudis and Syrians now
have a clearer picture of one another’s expectations. While
the Saudi King has agreed in principle to visit Damascus, it
is still unclear how quickly this will come about or if
Lebanese government formation is a prerequisite, though
travel by a Saudi delegation to Beirut Sep 30 suggests this
may be the case. Contacts suggest the King will travel with
the newly-appointed Syrian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mahdi
Dakhlallah within “the next few weeks.” END SUMMARY.

UNEXPECTED VISIT RAISES EXPECTATIONS
————————————

¶2. (U) Asad’s last-minute decision to attend the September
23 KAUST opening came as a surprise to almost everyone
involved. Press reports characterized the move as a clear
sign of continued Saudi-Syrian rapprochement and focused
heavily on its potential impact on the government formation
process in Lebanon. The official Saudi Press Agency
announced that the two leaders had discussed “major regional
and international developments,” without further specifics.
The Syrian Arab News Agency downplayed the meeting’s emphasis
on Lebanon, noting that “the relationship between Damascus
and Riyadh does not go through Beirut, and Syria and Saudi
Arabia agree that Lebanon,s affairs must be managed by the
Lebanese.”

ABDULLAH AND ASAD DISCUSS WHAT COMES NEXT
—————————————–

¶3. (C) According to contacts at the Egyptian embassy, the
media accurately reported details regarding the size and
nature of the meeting. King Abdullah, his son Prince
Abdulaziz, and Asad were the only individuals present, and
discussion of Lebanon and Palestinian reconciliation
dominated the agenda. The sides outlined specific, concrete
expectations they had for one another. With respect to
Lebanese government formation, King Abdullah asked Asad to
use his influence over his Syrian allies, and encourage Free
Patriotic Movement Leader Michel Aoun to abandon his
insistence on the Ministry of Transport and Communication
portfolio for Gebran Bassil. The King also urged Asad to
push harder on Hamas to reach an agreement on Palestinian
reconciliation in Cairo. For his part, Asad asked the King
to visit Damascus. The King reportedly agreed to the visit;
however, he did not indicate whether this visit was
contingent upon Lebanese government formation. Asad
reportedly promised the King a response to his requests,
which was delivered to Culture Minister Khoja via Syrian
information minister Mohsen Bilal on September 27. (NOTE:
The Saudi Press Agency reported that Bilal had delivered an
unspecified “invitation.” END NOTE.) While the timing of
any visit is still unclear, the Egyptians expect it will
happen “within the next few weeks,” and that he will travel
with newly-appointed Syrian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia,
former Information Minister Mahdi Dakhlallah. The Saudis
reportedly agreed to Dakhlallah’s appointment on September
26; he is expected to present his credentials at the earliest
opportunity.

¶4. (C) Meanwhile, notwithstanding protests from both sides
regarding the Lebanese angle, a Saudi delegation headed by
Mecca Governor Khalid Al Faisal travelled to Beirut for
meetings with Lebanese parliamentarians; unusually, the
delegation included Minister of State Abdulaziz bin Fahd, who
met with Sa’ad Hariri and President Michel Sleiman to convey
a message from King Abdullah. See ref A for details.
TURKISH CHARGE: WE MADE IT HAPPEN
———————————

¶5. (C) Turkish Charge Sadik Arslan told Poloff on September

RIYADH 00001303 002.2 OF 002

28 that reports of intense Turkish lobbying to convince a
reluctant Asad were true, and that the Turks had undertaken
these efforts by their own initiative. He also indicated
that Jordanian King Abdullah may have played a role, though
he did not mention any specifics. “It was during Eid, so
Asad was reluctant to come (to KAUST),” Arslan said, “but we
believed it was important and the Saudi-Syrian relationship
is essential.” Without a Saudi-Syrian agreement, he
continued, there was little hope that Lebanon could overcome
its government formation crisis. As for the rumored visit of
King Abdullah to Damascus, Arslan said, “we are hopeful that
this will happen very soon.” When pressed as to whether this
visit could be expected in days, weeks, or months, he
declined to speculate, adding only that he felt the current
atmosphere was “positive.”

COMMENT: BACK ON TRACK?
———————–

¶6. (C) Asad’s visit to the Kingdom is the latest in a series
of steps towards a fuller Saudi-Syrian rapprochement.
Whether the meeting will lead to the King visiting Damascus–
and whether this visit will become before, or after Lebanese
government formation– is still unclear. Saudi Ambassador
Abdullah Al-Eifan’s arrival in Damascus on August 25 was
confirmation that the Saudi-Syrian relationship was ready to
enter a new phase. However, Khoja’s remark to former Charge
d’Affaires a.i. Ambassador Erdman that the Saudis were “not
talking to the Syrians about Lebanon” (ref a) on September 1
suggested Lebanon was becoming an irritant to the process.
Asad’s visit, and the naming of a new Syrian Ambassador soon
afterwards, indicates the relationship may be back on a more
positive track.
SMITH

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Iran Calls Saudi Troops in Bahrain ‘Unacceptable’

Posted on 15 March 2011 by hashimilion

A day after Saudi Arabia’s military rolled into Bahrain, the Iranian government branded the move “unacceptable” on Tuesday, threatening to escalate a local political conflict into a regional showdown with Iran.

“The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue,” Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Tehran, according to state-run media.

Even as predominantly Shiite Muslim Iran pursues a determined crackdown against dissent at home, Tehran has supported the protests led by the Shiite majority in Bahrain.

“People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully,” Mr. Memanparast said. “It should not be responded to violently.”

“We expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means,” Mr. Mehmanparast added. Iran’s response — while anticipated — showed the depth of rivalry across the Persian Gulf in a contest that has far-reaching consequences in many parts of the Middle East.

On Monday, Iranian state-run media went so far as to call the troop movement an invasion. Saudi Arabia has been watching uneasily as Bahrain’s Shiite majority has staged weeks of protests against a Sunni monarchy, fearing that if the protesters prevailed, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s bitter regional rival, could expand its influence and inspire unrest elsewhere.

The Saudi decision to send in troops on Monday could further inflame the conflict and transform this teardrop of a nation in the Persian Gulf into the Middle East’s next proxy battlefield between regional and global powers. On Tuesday, there was no immediate indication that the Saudi forces were confronting protesters in the central Pearl Square — the emblem of the Bahrain protest much as Cairo’s Tahrir Square assumed symbolic significance in the Egyptian uprising.

Several hundred protesters camped out there on what seemed initially to be a quiet day with little traffic on the streets as the details of the deployment by Bahrain’s neighbors — and their mission — remained ill-defined.

On Monday, about 2,000 troops — 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates — entered Bahrain as part of a force operating under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation regional coalition of Sunni rulers that has grown increasingly anxious over the sustained challenge to Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. “This is the initial phase,” a Saudi official said. “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs. It’s open-ended.”

The decision is the first time the council has used collective military action to help suppress a popular revolt — in this case a Shiite popular revolt. It was rejected by the opposition, and by Iran, as an “occupation.” Iran has long claimed that Bahrain is historically part of Iran.

The troops entered Bahrain at an especially combustible moment in the standoff between protesters and the monarchy. In recent days protesters have begun to move from the encampment in Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the nation, to the actual seat of power and influence, the Royal Court and the financial district. As the troops moved in, protesters controlled the main highway and said they were determined not to leave.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Jassim Hussein Ali, a member of the opposition Wefaq party and a former member of Parliament, said in a phone interview. “Bahrain is heading toward major problems, anarchy. This is an occupation, and this is not welcome.”

Rasool Nafisi, an academic and Iran expert based in Virginia, said: “Now that the Saudis have gone in, they may spur a similar reaction from Iran, and Bahrain becomes a battleground between Saudi and Iran. This may prolong the conflict rather than put an end to it, and make it an international event rather than a local uprising.”

An adviser to the United States government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press, agreed. “Iran’s preference was not to get engaged because the flow of events was in their direction,” he said. “If the Saudi intervention changes the calculus, they will be more aggressive.”

Though Bahrain said it had invited the force, the Saudi presence highlights the degree to which the kingdom has become concerned over Iran’s growing regional influence, and demonstrates that the Saudi monarchy has drawn the line at its back door. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington, has traditionally preferred to operate in the shadows through checkbook diplomacy. It has long provided an economic lifeline to Bahrain.

But it now finds itself largely standing alone to face Iran since its most important ally in that fight, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, has been ousted in a popular uprising. Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, recently toppled the Saudi-backed government of Lebanon — a symbol of its regional might and Saudi Arabia’s diminishing clout.

But Bahrain is right at Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, where the kingdoms are connected by a causeway.

The Gulf Cooperation Council was clearly alarmed at the prospect of a Shiite political victory in Bahrain, fearing that it would inspire restive Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to protest as well. The majority of the population in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, where the oil is found, is Shiite, and there have already been small protests there.

“If the opposition in Bahrain wins, then Saudi loses,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “In this regional context, the decision to move troops into Bahrain is not to help the monarchy of Bahrain, but to help Saudi Arabia itself .”

The Bahrain government said that it had invited the force in to help restore and preserve public order. The United States — which has continued to back the monarchy — said Monday that the move was not an occupation. The United States has long been allied with Bahrain’s royal family and has based the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain for many years.

Though the United States eventually sided with the demonstrators in Egypt, in Bahrain it has instead supported the leadership while calling for restraint and democratic change. The Saudi official said the United States was informed Sunday that the Saudi troops would enter Bahrain on Monday.

Saudi and council officials said the military forces would not engage with the demonstrators, but would protect infrastructure, government offices and industries, even though the protests had largely been peaceful. The mobilization would allow Bahrain to free up its own police and military forces to deal with the demonstrators, the officials said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council “forces are not there to kill people,” said a Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. “This is a G.C.C. decision; we do not violate international law.”

But the officials also acknowledged that it was a message to Iran. “There is no doubt Iran is involved,” said the official, though no proof has been offered that Iran has had anything to do with the political unrest.

Political analysts said that it was likely that the United States did not object to the deployment in part because it, too, saw a weakened monarchy as a net benefit to Iran at a time when the United States wants to move troops out of Iraq, where Iran has already established an influence.

The military force is one part of a Gulf Cooperation Council effort to try to contain the crisis in Bahrain that broke out Feb. 14, when young people called for a Day of Rage, fashioned after events in Egypt and Tunisia. The police and then the army killed seven demonstrators, leading Washington to press Bahrain to remove its forces from the street.

The royal family allowed thousands of demonstrators to camp at Pearl Square. It freed some political prisoners, allowed an exiled opposition leader to return and reshuffled the cabinet. And it called for a national dialogue.

But the concessions — after the killings — seemed to embolden a movement that went from calling for a true constitutional monarchy to demanding the downfall of the monarchy. The monarchy has said it will consider instituting a fairly elected Parliament, but it insisted that the first step would be opening a national dialogue — a position the opposition has rejected, though it was unclear whether the protesters were speaking with one voice.

The council moved troops in after deciding earlier to help prop up the king with a contribution of $10 billion over 10 years, and said that it might increase that figure. But if the goal was to intimidate Iran, or the protesters, that clearly was not the first response.

Bahrain’s opposition groups issued a statement: “We consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain’s air, sea or land territories a blatant occupation.”

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Protests In Yemen Building Up

Posted on 18 February 2011 by hashimilion

For nearly a week thousands of Yemenis have been gathering in Sana’a, their capital, and in several other cities around the country. In Aden, the old capital of the south, two protesters were killed on February 16th. A demonstration the next day in Sana’a was bigger and bloodier than ever, posing still more of a threat to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The unrest is getting more violent and more widespread.

When rallies were first held several weeks ago, they were organised by Yemen’s official opposition, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a hotch-potch of Islamists, socialists and others. But a new wave of protesters, including unemployed young people and frustrated students, are angrier. Whereas the JMP called for political and electoral reform, the latest protesters are chanting, “After Mubarak, Ali’s turn!”

The established opposition groups wrung quite big concessions out of Mr Saleh, including a promise to step down in 2013—without passing his baton to a son. The latest lot want an immediate change. The JMP leaders, by contrast, are nervy about an abrupt shift, wary that Yemenis are perhaps the most heavily armed people in the world.

In any event, the security forces have begun to crack down. On February 11th they stood by, as pro-government people beat up opposition demonstrators. Two days later riot police and plainclothes security men broke up a march of a thousand-odd people in Sana’a with clubs and electric batons. Journalists have been attacked; dozens of campaigners have been arrested or injured.

Parts of the country are in open revolt against the corrupt and oppressive regime in Sana’a. A tribal war persists in the north. A secessionist movement is bubbling in the south. Across the country, al-Qaeda cells are trying to topple the government and bring about a Muslim caliphate in the region. Rumours are swirling in the streets of Sana’a that cash is being moved to foreign bank accounts and assets liquidated in case members of the ruling circle need to leave in a hurry.

Mr Saleh has not reached that stage yet. The protests are still far smaller than those in Tunis or Cairo. Moreover, only a third of Yemenis live in towns; few have access to the internet or own mobile telephones. The president is a wily manipulator of the tribal politics that still dominates Yemen. But as the protests spread, he is far from safe.

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