The Saudi-Syrian Back Channel to End the War

Opinion Articles


In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement struck between Iran and six world powers, a number of the countries with a stake in Syria’s gridlocked civil war have pushed forward initiatives to end the conflict. While the negotiations involving Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries have been undertaken in secret for months, Moscow and Tehran’s recent willingness to engage on this issue has made President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus more attentive to the proposals on the table.

Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s national security advisor, made quiet visits at the end of July to both the Saudi city of Jeddah and to Muscat, Oman, according to both Saudi-based sources and sources close to the Assad regime. Mamlouk’s visit represents the first time Saudi Arabia and Oman have invited a senior Syrian official to the Gulf to discuss a political settlement. Following Mamlouk’s visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made an official visit in early August to Muscat to meet with the Omani foreign minister where they discussed, according to Syrian state media, “efforts to put an end to the crisis in Syria … which preserves the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity” of the country.

In conversations with those who were engaged in his visits, Mamlouk arrived in Jeddah and Muscat to continue discussing his proposals for ending the civil war. These previously secret discussions have been taking place for at least the past few months. Despite pressure from Moscow, neither Riyadh nor Tehran have fully bought into these proposals at this stage and are presently biding their time in the hopes that events on the ground will allow them to reach a better settlement.

Assad’s negotiator

As early as 2012, Ali Mamlouk pursued different options to bring an end to Syria’s civil war. His efforts have ranged from exploring local cease-fires to quietly meeting with a limited number of opposition members. He has also explored diplomatic initiatives with Syria’s neighbors and the GCC, including the recent outreach in Jeddah and Oman.

In interviews with individuals who have worked with Mamlouk at various points in Damascus, the Syrian intelligence chief is described as a strategic thinker skilled at managing Assad’s national security process and its tangled web of competing security services. Despite speculative press reporting that Mamlouk either was placed under house arrest for negotiating beyond his brief or had fled to Turkey, he remains a close confidant of Assad and remains largely above the fray of the deepening rivalries within Assad’s inner circle.

The intelligence chief has reasons to press for a negotiated end to the conflict that go beyond the regime’s recent battlefield losses. Mamlouk — along with other senior Syrian army, security, and intelligence officials — has expressed to individuals interviewed for this piece growing unease with the dominance Iran exerts over the Syrian state. At this point, no major strategic or operational decision is in their hands, let alone in the hands of Assad. Mamlouk and others are reportedly concerned that their dependence on Tehran to fight this war has come at a high cost — it has diminished the Syrian leadership’s say over their country’s future. Assad cannot ignore these sentiments.

Assad acknowledged earlier this month the deepening strain the fighting is having on Syria’s army, signaling that the military would be forced to retreat from certain areas. As sources in Damascus have noted in recent weeks, Turkey’s recent effort to establish a safe zone in northern Syria, the Islamic State’s gains in the country, and rebel militias’ moves toward the country’s Alawite heartland have made the conflict — while still manageable, in Assad’s estimation — increasingly dangerous for the regime.

Riyadh remains wary

While this recent flurry of diplomatic activity is significant, observers shouldn’t get ahead of themselves about predicting their impact on the four-year war.

In his meeting in Jeddah, Mamlouk discussed with senior Saudi officials the possibility of launching a political process. Saudi Arabia would withdraw its support for the armed Syrian opposition, and, in exchange, Damascus would commit to a vaguely defined process leading to an end of the civil war and U.N.-sponsored presidential and parliamentary elections. Such a resolution would then pave the way for both sides to form a united front in combatting the Islamic State. In exchange, Saudi officials demanded that Iran withdraw its proxy militias from Syria.

The discussions did not delve into specifics on how such an agreement could be executed, and there are still significant gaps between both sides. Importantly, it still is unclear what degree of Iranian influence would be acceptable to Saudi Arabia and its allies, and what Assad’s position would be in such a settlement.

It’s also up for debate how seriously Riyadh is pursuing such a settlement. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, at a press conference on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stressed that Assad cannot be part of a political solution in Syria.

Mamlouk’s invitation to Jeddah, then, points more likely to Riyadh’s willingness to be seen as a constructive partner in Moscow’s renewed diplomatic efforts. In early August, Lavrov traveled to Qatar for meetingswith Secretary of State John Kerry and Jubeir, while Russia’s special representative for the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, held meetings in Tehran. But since Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Moscow last month, Riyadh has better cards in play — notably with the recent U.S.-Turkish intervention in northern Syria and with increased efforts to train Syrian opposition and to combat the Islamic State.

Mamlouk’s visit to Muscat shouldn’t be overlooked either. According to a source close to these ongoing negotiations, Mamlouk met with two senior GCC officials responsible for security affairs to discuss Saudi-UAE engagement with leading Sunni tribes in Syria. This initiative is separate from the proposal discussed in Jeddah, and the negotiations — which have been underway for more than six months — include Syrian Sunni tribal representatives, representatives of tribes in the UAE, and Saudi and GCC officials. These discussions have been focused on trying to find a political settlement but have yet to yield tangible results. Senior Syrian Sunni tribal leaders have privately expressed concern about Iran’s increasing role in their affairs and consider engagement with GCC states a potential avenue to containing Iran’s influence in the state.

These tribal negotiations also represent another effort by Assad to explore a political settlement — but not yet to fully commit to this path. Even if Assad may be willing to accept some of the GCC’s terms on either of these initiatives, he is in no position to do so without Tehran’s sign-off.

A view from Tehran

Tehran has not publicly supported either of Mamlouk’s initiatives. Instead, Iran recently announced a parallel initiative, which will soon be presented to the United Nations, proposing a cease-fire leading to a unity government. This proposal indicates Tehran may be willing to consider an agreement that ensures its interests and makes some concessions to the GCC — but would not go as far as meeting the demands the Saudis made to Mamlouk in Jeddah last month.

As difficult as Assad’s military position currently is, the situation is not dire enough to force Iran to make the really difficult choices. Government forces still retain control of key terrain in Damascus and across western Syria, and can rely on continued Hezbollah and Iranian military support. The influx of new resources from the recent nuclear deal will likely allow Tehran to procrastinate further, regardless of Washington’s or Moscow’s hopes.

Tehran’s paramount goal is to preserve at least some form of the Syrian state, which can facilitate its support for Hezbollah and the rest of its proxy network targeting Israel. This is not simply a marriage of convenience — it is an existential question for Iran. Hezbollah is arguably Iran’s most important deterrent against Israel and the West, and it is nearly impossible for Iran to support the Shiite organization without access to the Damascus airport and supply lines running across the Syrian border into Lebanon.

Tehran is also very unlikely to stand-down the new multinational Shiite army it has assembled from Hezbollah units, local paramilitaries, and Shiite militias from around the region. Not only is this force essential to Tehran’s struggle to preserve its role in Syria and Iraq, but it also provides a hedge against what it sees as an increasingly aggressive Saudi regional foreign policy.

Until Tehran and Riyadh can reach an agreement that satisfies both states’ interests, a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis remains quite far off. Despite this uptick in diplomacy, neither side has reached this tipping point.

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