By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
There is a new dynamic in the region that could result in a diplomatic breakthrough culminating in a political resolution to two key conflicts: Syria and Yemen. A number of factors have come together to launch a momentum that is picking pace almost every day. The agreement over Iran’s nuclear deal has ushered a new geopolitical reality which resonated in two key regional capitals — Riyadh and Tehran. But it also allowed Washington and Moscow to review positions and attempt a new approach to the four-year Syrian crisis.
The momentum began after a historic visit by Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, minister of defense, to Moscow last June. Apart from signing a number of strategic agreements, the two sides agreed to work together to find a solution to the intractable Syrian conflict. President Vladimir Putin had then suggested that a regional coalition be formed, bringing together Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and Syria, to confront the rising threat of Daesh.
That suggestion was not embraced by any party but it was not rejected as well.
A series of terrorist attacks on mosques and other targets in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait convinced decision makers in Riyadh, and indeed in the GCC states, of the need to act decisively against the insurgency. Despite conflicting approaches by key regional and international players to the crises gripping Syria, Iraq and Yemen, there is consensus when it comes to dealing with the menace of extremism. Turkey’s decision to join the international coalition fighting Daesh has also galvanized such consensus.
Another factor that helped boost diplomatic momentum is the fast changing military reality on the ground in both Syria and Yemen. In the former, the regime of Bashar Assad has admitted to recent defeats in the north and the south. It was forced to withdraw from strategic areas as opposition forces moved in to secure liberated territories. Damascus allies are coming to the conclusion that the regime is weak and exhausted and that the country was heading toward de facto partition, with Daesh benefitting as well.
In Yemen the Saudi-led coalition and loyalist fighters were able to liberate Aden and recapture other governorates as the Houthi-Saleh alliance was forced to pull back. Riyadh has kept the door open for a political settlement that would restore the legitimate government and implement reconciliation based on the outcome of national dialogue that was reached last year in Sanaa.
These developments paved the way for a number of key public and secret meetings in the past few weeks. The trilateral summit that brought together US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir in Doha last month focused on a new approach to the crises in both Syria and Yemen as well as adopting a strategy to fight Daesh. That was followed by visits by Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem to Tehran, Moscow and Muscat, raising hopes that a new plan to end the conflict was being discussed.
But the most interesting development was the revelation that a secret visit was made by a top Syrian regime security official to Jeddah sometime in July. According to a number of news sources Saudi Arabia suggested a plan to end foreign and regional interference in Syrian affairs provided that the regime accepts a wholly Syrian resolution to the conflict that will help prepare the ground for presidential and parliamentary elections in Syria, under UN monitoring.
Meanwhile, Al-Jubeir is in Russia to discuss a number of issues, with the Syrian crisis topping the agenda. The visit comes a week before a delegation of the Syrian National Coalition is expected to arrive at the Russian capital as part of Moscow’s new perspective on the conflict. Tehran, on its part, is said to be ready to unveil a peace initiative on Syria, one that was discussed with a number of regional powers, and which will be delivered to the UN Security Council soon.
The plan proposes a cease-fire, the formation of a national transitional government, a new constitution and internationally monitored elections. The initiative is in sync with the principles of Geneva declaration.
The future of Assad remains a thorny issue, but it is suggested that the new approach by Moscow and Tehran accepts the fact that he will eventually leave office. It will be interesting to see Riyadh’s reaction to this. Meanwhile, recent coalition success in Yemen is also putting pressure on Tehran and on the Houthi-Saleh alliance to accept a political settlement that conforms with the UN Security Council resolution 2216. The Muscat meetings that are taking place will probably deliver some positive news on that front.
Saudi Arabia’s flexibility on both crises underlines a sense of pragmatism and realpolitik that could pave the way for a major geopolitical breakthrough in the coming few days and weeks.