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Ties With Key Arab Nations at “Historic Low”

While Syria has recently succeeded in breaking its international isolation through high-level contacts with a series of European countries, relations with several Arab nations remain at an historic low.

The axis that used to be called the Arab triangle – strong relations between Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – seems to be broken and not easily repaired, say Syrian analysts.

There had been rumours that tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria might be eased by the imminent visit of Syrian president Bashir al-Assad to the kingdom, but this week the pro-government website Sham Press quoted an official Syrian source saying the head of state had no intention of making Omra (pilgrimage to Mecca outside the specified Hajj period), as several Arabic newspapers had reported.

The website stated that Syrian-Saudi relations were experiencing “an unprecedented freeze” and blamed what it said was Saudi Arabia’s attempts to undermine the Arab summit in Damascus in May this year, as well as the kingdom’s financial support for members of the Syrian opposition.

Tensions between Syria and a number of other Arab states surfaced after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. The killing of al-Hariri, who had strong ties with the Saudi royal family, caused friction with Syria who the international community regards as the main suspect in the murder that is still being investigated by a United Nations committee.

Syria, in turn, strengthened its relations with Iran and groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – a move that some Arab nations considered an attempt to create instability in the region, say analysts.

The conflict grew more acute during the Israeli war against Lebanon in summer 2006. While Syria strongly supported Hezbollah, states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia stood firmly behind the Lebanese government. To add insult to injury, President Assad publicly called some Arab leaders “half men”.

In April this year, three Syrian prisoners charged with drug smuggling were beheaded in Saudi Arabia. The executions prompted protests in Syria in front of the Saudi embassy in Damascus. Since all demonstrations in Syria need to be approved or at least condoned by the authorities, the protests were considered officially directed at Saudi Arabia. The state-controlled Syrian media also widely condemned the executions as unfair, claiming they were politically motivated.

But the clearest indication of the poor state of the relations between Syria and its Arab neighbours came when Saudi Arabia and Egypt sent low-ranking representatives to the Arab summit.

"Syria’s priority right now is to break its international isolation and to improve its relations with the US to decrease the risk to the regime," said a Syrian analyst based in Damascus.

"Syria has strong self-confidence. It is aware of the importance of support from the Saudi and Egyptian side, but at the same time thinks that, through its policies, it can force the two countries to approve its position in the end, especially if the regime succeeded in getting better relations with the next US administration."

Over recent months, Syria has successfully broken its international isolation, by for instance promoting relations with Turkey that mediates indirect peace talks with Israel. These developments stand in sharp contract to its frosty relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Earlier this year, after the visit of President Bush to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Syrian media opened fire on both countries. While the media war between Syria and Egypt seems to have calmed recently, it is still continuing with Saudi Arabia.

In August, Syrian foreign affairs minister Waleed al-Muallem declined an invitation to a meeting of the Islamic Conference Organisation held in Saudi Arabia. The pro-government newspaper al-Watan reported that this was due to the bad relations between the two countries.

Recently, the same newspaper directly accused Saudi Arabia of playing a major role in the assassination of al-Hariri.

According to the Syrian analyst, relations with Egypt mainly suffer from Syria’s support for the Islamic group Hamas which controls the Gaza strip adjacent to Egypt. A major concern for the majority Sunni Saudi Arabia, in his eyes, is Syria’s close alliance with Shia Iran.

Another political commentator based in Damascus wonders if Syria can improve its relations with its Arab neighbours any time soon.

"It is difficult to realise real change as long as the same old ideological rhetoric prevails which is directed against moderate countries, and as long as the behaviour towards many conflicts in the region like Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine remains the same, [and] the coalition with Iran [continues],” he said.

While it might be possible to improve relations with Egypt, he said, the problem with Saudi Arabia “is deeper and more complicated". He added that a simple meeting or apology would not be enough, as “it needs a…change of behaviour and positions. But…the regime does not seem prepared to change its policies at the moment”.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists.)

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