The leader of the Lebanese party Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has made shocking claims regarding a Saudi overture to its enemy Syria, during an interview with the left leaning Al-Akhbar media outlet. While relations between the Syrian Arab Republic and Saudi Arabia remain severed, Nasrallah claims that officials from both states held two secret meetings during which Saudi Arabia pledged to withdraw its support for terrorist groups in Syria and instead pour billions into Syria’s post-war revitalisation, so long as Syria abandons its partnership with Iran and Hezbollah. According to Nasrallah, these offers were rejected.
Whether or not such meetings took place, the very fact that such a thing could be suggested, speaks to a wider development throughout the Middle East. While both sides are reticent to admit it, Saudi Arabia and “Israel” share a virtually identical regional foreign policy. Nowhere is this truer than on issues regarding Iran.
From anti-Arabism to anti-Islamic Revolution
It is no secret that for decades – long before the present conflict which began in 2011, both Tel Aviv and Riyadh were salivating at the thought of ‘regime change’ in Damascus. Both the Saudi and “Israeli” regimes share a loathing for progressive Arab Nationalist states which have historically been the most anti-Zionist governments in the Arab world. The ideological weight of Arab Nationalism also challenges the legitimacy of Wahhabi monarchical rule as a credible political force in the contemporary Arab world. This was true even before the Saudi-“Israeli” partnership reached the obvious high point at which relations currently reside.
Since the 1980s, the Saudi-“Israel” geopolitical narrative has gradually shifted, as have the political realities of the Middle East. As it became clear after the Iran-Iraq War that the Islamic Revolution in Iran was not going to be easily dislodged, the traditionally anti-Arab Nationalist powers of the region (primarily Saudi Arabia and “Israel”) began to pivot their public airings of ire away from Arab Nationalist governments and towards The Islamic Republic of Iran.
This has become ever more apparent in the 21st century as Iran’s influence in the region becomes stronger, while the Arab Nationalist governments of Libya and Iraq were violently toppled by the US military. With Egypt’s secular government more or less ideologically neutralised vis-a-vis its Nasserist zenith and with Algeria being generally further off the diplomatic radar for Tel Aviv and Riyadh than the countries of the Levant, Syria became the last stand for Arab Nationalism. Against all international expectations, the Arab Nationalist government in Damascus has won. While the conflict in Syria is not over, no serious geopolitical observer actually believes that Syria’s political characteristics will change once the conflict is resolved. In all likelihood, President Al-Assad will be in power for decades to come.
Regime change off the table
Because the wider world knows that ‘regime change’ in Syria has failed, Saudi Arabia, “Israel” and in a less pronounced manner, even the United States have shifted their anti-Assad/anti-Arab Nationalist narrative to an anti-Iranian narrative. In spite of this, “Israel’s” reticence to attack Iran directly was recently made clear when a former defence minister Shaul Mofaz stated that the incoming US National Security Adviser John Bolton encouraged “Israel” to attack Iran in recent years. This demand was apparently too hawkish, even for the more hawkish regime in the Middle East.
Instead, “Israel” has pursued a policy of hit-and-run style air raids on Syrian territory under the guise that they are destroying “Iranian” targets. At the same time, Washington and Tel Aviv continually admonish alleged Iranian influence in Syria, far more so than they even admonish the Syrian government. If Saudi Arabia held meetings with Syria trying to effectively bribe Damascus into dropping its partnership with Iran, this is the furthest evidence yet that while having given up on regime change in Syria, Saudi Arabia, “Israel” and the US are keen to contain rather than destroy Iran, knowing full well that a direct attack on Iran would be an incredibly dangerous military undertaking.
Russia’s misunderstood position
Russia’s position in the Middle East is widely misunderstood both in pro-Russian and anti-Russian media circles. While Russia is a longstanding friend of the Syrian Arab Republic and has developed a close relationship with Iran in recent years, Russia also has incredibly positive relations with “Israel” and increasingly productive relations with Saudi Arabia. At the same time Russia’s relations with Turkey continue to grow at a rapid pace, in spite of Turkey’s disputes with both Syria and its Saudi nemesis.
Iran continues to see the conflict in Syria in both military and ideological terms. This is one of the reasons that Syria and Iran continue to work closely. Both countries seek to militarily liberate all occupied parts of Syria while both seek a post-war political settlement that further enshrines the “resistance narrative”.
By contrast, Russia seeks to wind down the military aspect of the conflict as much as reasonably possible and shift to a political conflict resolution process modelled on the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. While Russia does not and would not tell Syria what, if any ideological narrative to pursue in a conflict resolution environment, Moscow’s words and actions make it clear that for Russia, the less overtly ideological solution the better. This is why for Moscow, the conflict has always been about the universally accepted goal of defeating terrorism, rather than an ideological goal of promoting a “resistance versus evil” narrative.
The following scenarios would unfold in an ideal Moscow driven peace process
1. Reconciliation between Turkey and Syria, including an agreement for Turkey to gradually withdraw its forces from northern Syria in exchange for guarantees that Syria will not allow any cross-border YPG/PKK activity of any kind.
2. After terrorists are defeated on the ground, instigate a dialogue process regarding how to integrate some anti-government political groups back into society. Incidentally, while this might sound like a tall order, it is the area where Syria and Russia agree the strongest.
3. Re-freezing the conflict in the Golan Heights, thereby shelving the aspirations of some in Syria to retake some or all of the illegally occupied Golan from “Israel”. This is because Russia does not want the Syrian war against Takfiri groups to spiral into a war between the Syrian and “Israeli” armed forces. While Russia along with every other nation recognises the Golan as Syrian, Russia is keen to avoid a new and possibly massive conflict in the region.
4. Finally, Russia wants Syria to work with the wider international community to condemn the US occupation of eastern Syria while avoiding anything approaching a direct confrontation between the Syrian military and US forces.
While Russia has not, would not and could not tell Syria to reduce the status of its Iranian alliance, Russia however is likely already trying to foster a kind of gentleman’s agreement whereby Iran will reduce its visible presence and activities near the occupied Golan Heights in order to satisfy what “Israel” calls its “security concerns” (however irrational these “concerns” are).
Thus, while some in the wider Resistance movement are privately angry that Russia has not adopted their long-term vision for Syria, Russia’s solutions actually present a win-win situation whereby “Israel” and Saudi Arabia would lose all credibility in terms of their narrative regarding an Iranian presence in Syria, while Iran and Syria could and would still be close allies, but allies who pivot a military relationship towards a relationship cast around economic redevelopment.
For all the world knows, Nasrallah’s statement could have well been a pre-election rhetorical device in order to bolster a Resistance narrative among Lebanese voters, but even if this is the case, the statement hints at the nature and focus of the wider Saudi/”Israeli”/American anti-Iranian strategy for the region, while also serving to open up wider discussions about how to best prevent anti-Iranian aggression while pacifying the seemingly intractable provocateurs who spin the anti-Iran narrative. Russia has a clear, however unwritten roadmap for peace through compromise in the region. The only question is who will be the first to embrace it?