The Syrian-Arab Rift

Bashar Assad is trying to mend fences with the rest of the Arab League, but as long as Syria remains linked to Iran and the Lebanese opposition, he will only have limited success.

A satirical collage (right) that appears on the Web site of the Syrian opposition depicts the happy "family": The father, wearing an olive-green T-shirt and gazing off into the horizon, is Mahmoud Ahmedinejad; the mother, with long hair and a weary face (and a mustache), is President Bashar Assad; and in front of them are their two "daughters" - retired general Michel Aoun, who heads the pro-Syrian Christian party in Lebanon, and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, both depicted as puppets.

The image of this "family" isn't the product only of the creative mind of the Syrian opposition or of Lebanese opponents of Syria. Syria has done its own part to earn this image, to the point that it has become a pan-Arab one and a diplomatic problem: The Iranian-Syrian connection, which never used to disturb the Arab states very much, has in the last year given birth to the Syrian-Arab rift. A spate of articles published in recent months in the Arab press concerning Syria and Iran are indicative not only of some common public stance, but primarily of governmental orchestration. This seems to be the case in Egypt, Jordan and especially Saudi Arabia, whose king has not spoken with the Syrian leader since last summer, when Bashar Assad called the leaders of the Arab states "half men" for not aiding Hezbollah against Israel.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak isn't speaking to Assad either. Last week, when Farouk Shara, Assad's vice-president, visited Cairo, Mubarak refused to discuss the possibility of Egyptian mediation to help thaw relations with Saudi Arabia. Mubarak presented - dictated, practically - to Shara the conditions under which Egypt would agree to act: Syrian consent to bringing the matter of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri before the International Court, and positive Syrian intervention to resolve the political crisis in Lebanon, a crisis that has paralyzed the government there for over a year.

Syria's attempts to reconcile with Saudi Arabia haven't been very successful, either. Leaks from Syria, published in the Arab press, say, for example, that Assad relayed a message to Saudi Arabia saying that Syrian intelligence officials were aware of attempts by radical subversives in Lebanon to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, Abdel Rahman Khoja. At the same time, Syria spread the message in Saudi Arabia that it was the one that made it clear to Khaled Meshal of Hamas that failure at the Mecca conference was not an option. After the Mecca agreement was signed, Syrian representatives talked about how, had it not been for Assad, the agreement would not have been signed.

Saudi Arabia, however, does not appear to be too impressed by these messages either. As Saudi Arabia sees it, Syria should return to the Arab embrace and cease representing Iran's interests; in particular, it should allow Lebanon to function, and give its consent to the hearing in the International Court. On this matter, incidentally, Syria's position is no different from Iran's. Syria sees now that even its participation in the Baghdad conference two weeks ago, at that moment of grace when it spoke directly with the United States, did not bring about an improvement in its status, and that the visit to Damascus last Tuesday by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, did nothing to soften hearts in Cairo or Riyadh. The reason: It is Lebanon, and not Washington or Israel, that is currently responsible for Syria's image as a pariah state. So much so that, in an extraordinary move, Saudi Arabia invited Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to participate in the March 28-29 Arab League summit in Riyadh, which was supposed to be limited to presidents and kings.

Granted, Siniora was also in attendance at the previous summit, in Khartoum, a year ago, alongside President Emile Lahoud, but that was an unplanned, uninvited appearance. This time, however, Saudi Arabia wished to make clear to the president of Lebanon and, through him, to Syria, that it considers Siniora the true leader of Lebanon, and above all, that at this summit, the Lebanese issue can no longer be kept under Syria's protective wing.

Moderate doesn't mean liberal

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will hear about a tough axis on Saturday in the Egyptian city of Aswan, when she meets with four Arab foreign ministers - from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The group doesn't even have a very original name: the "Arab Quartet," the axis of countries that have earned the misleading label of "moderate." "Misleading," because these are not countries that excel in their liberal policies toward their citizens. Egypt, for example, continues to arrest members of the Muslim Brotherhood, its press law is still one of the most draconian, and the human rights report published last week by the U.S. State Department notes serious problems there, including the torture of prisoners and the restriction of freedom of expression.

The Jordanian press law also isn't one of the greatest, and it is only due to an agreement that is not anchored in legislation that the government has refrained from imprisoning journalists. Saudi Arabia is in a league of its own on everything related to freedom of expression or the status of women (one example: a woman in the kingdom is not permitted to obtain a driver's license, even if she is a doctor who wishes to drive an ambulance). Only the United Arab Emirates can really lay any claim to the term "moderate."

Thus, "moderate states" (a phrase used only in relation to Arab states - no one characterizes Greece or Bulgaria, for instance, according to a scale of moderation or radicalism) are countries that show moderation toward American policy in the Middle East. They are states that have obediently followed the boycott of the Palestinian Authority under Hamas, and they are states whose moderation is primarily manifested in the intensity of their fear of Iran and their struggle with extremist religious streams.

Now the United States wants to define these states as a separate axis, whether it is distinct from the Arab League or is in a position to influence the political agenda in the Middle East. A sort of advisory council. But it seems that it would be a mistake to view these states as an extension of Washington. Because tomorrow at the meeting in Aswan, where the temperature is already a summer-like 35 degrees Centigrade (95 Fahrenheit), Washington will try to persuade, not demand of, the Arab Quartet to continue coordinating positions with it on three main problems: the situation in Iraq, the "Syria and Lebanon problem" and "the Palestinian issue." It will be something of a teaser for the Arab summit, which is due to convene in the Saudi capital four days later.

Alternative axis

This is an alternative axis, not only for Washington but for the moderate states themselves, which know that when decisions of the Arab League summit must be passed unanimously, then Syria or Yemen or Sudan can exercise a veto over them. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, at least, are tired of the usual routine at Arab League summits, where Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi isn't the only one to put on a show, but Syria also dictates its continued patronage of Lebanon and blocks any new initiative. Since this is "the Saudi year," in which this wealthy nation has pulled itself out of the cocoon in which it has enveloped itself for years, the meeting in Aswan could also produce a series of conditions. Because whoever wants to obtain Saudi Arabia's intervention, together with that bloc of moderate states, will also need to know the price tag. Whoever wants Saudi Arabia to continue exerting pressure on Syria and to aid Lebanon, may be asked to pay in action on the Palestinian front.

In Palestine, a government was born after a Cesarean section was performed in Mecca last month, under the patronage of King Abdullah, who gave his blessing. Abdullah knows, as does Egypt, that this is the best result that could have been achieved under the existing conditions. Someone, Israel or the United States, or optimally both of them, will have to respect this Saudi achievement if they want the moderate Arab Quartet to have any meaning. Damascus, by the way, will be very pleased if the Saudi achievement at the Mecca conference, to which Assad ostensibly contributed, falls apart with a bang.