By Ibrahim al-Amin
The UN’s special Syria envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, is still waiting to get an appointment with the Saudis as he makes the rounds in the region to prepare for the Geneva II talks. Visiting Saudi Arabia is critical for the envoy’s mission to succeed. Brahimi knows that without Riyadh’s support, the peace conference is unlikely to make much headway.
Brahimi may be reassured that the United States and Russia have gone so far as to set a date for the talks, but the man who has a long history of dealing with complicated negotiations is pragmatic enough to know that the cooperation of regional powers like Iran and Saudi are critical to achieve the task at hand.
With Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt softening their stance toward the Syrian regime, the UN envoy is trying to lay the groundwork for the Geneva talks by focusing on three levels. On the international level, he has been given the blessing of the two main world powers – the US and Russia. On the regional level, Iran has welcomed his efforts, with Saudi still holding out. And finally, on the internal Syrian front, he has mended fences somewhat with the regime, as he tries to cobble together a credible delegation that would represent the opposition.
Brahimi realizes that the warring sides may push for an escalation in order to gain territory or score a victory in advance of Geneva II. In particular, the opposition’s American and Saudi backers want to put a stop to the regime’s recent gains on many fronts by focusing their forces on the capital. Riyadh, for example, has been reinforcing its militias’ presence in the western suburbs of Damascus as well as the mountains that run along the northern border of Lebanon.
Washington says it is doing all it can to convince the Syrian opposition and its regional supporters to back Geneva II, trying to find a way to offer the Saudis – who feel that they have the most to lose from entering negotiations with the Bashar al-Assad regime – something in return for their participation in the peace conference. Many indicators suggest that Riyadh wants to be rewarded in Lebanon, in the form of imposing a government of their choosing.
That’s why we are hearing talk in Lebanese political circles, particularly among those under Saudi influence, that a government will finally see the light of day before Lebanon’s Independence Day on November 22. Riyadh hopes to form a government that would ultimately pressure Hezbollah to pull its forces out of Syria, which is currently the monarchy’s overwhelming priority.
But the Saudis are unaware of the risks involved in such a venture. They may realize that all sides to the Syrian conflict are moving in the direction of a political resolution and compromise, but they are also aware that the concessions being asked of them are greater that those demanded of any other party to the crisis. The problem is that their March 14 allies in Lebanon are in such a weakened state, that a sectarian cataclysm may be necessary to reverse their losses and allow them to carry out their Saudi mission.
Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition