Arab countries own the biggest share of the Middle Eastern sand pit. Yet their tendency to bicker among themselves keeps letting others grab the toys. The Arabs have looked on haplessly as America marched into Iraq,Israel clobbered Lebanon and Gaza,and their ancient rival Iran subtly spread its influence. But new challenges,plus a whiff of expectation that American diplomacy is about to change,are prompting a fresh effort by Arabs to resolve their disputes.
The challenges are daunting. They include the likelihood that Israel’s next government,which looks set to empower parties on the hard right,will prove allergic to making peace; Iran’s potential for going nuclear or fomenting unrest among Shia minorities in Arab countries; and the possibility that infighting among Palestinians could,in the short run,stall the delivery of aid to the wretched Gazans and in the longer run ruin the chance of a unified Palestinian state. Together,it is feared,these developments may pitch the turbulent region into a bitter new bout of chaos.
A more immediate prospect of embarrassment looms when the Arab League’s 22 heads of state gather later this month for their annual summit. Another public rupture is the last thing they need as they try to coax Barack Obama into addressing their concerns more sympathetically than his often heedless predecessor.
This week in the Saudi capital,Riyadh,the kingdom’s 84-year-old ruler,King Abdullah,hosted the similarly aged and American-allied leaders of Egypt and Kuwait,along with Syria’s President Bashar Assad,a relative stripling who has fashioned himself as America’s opponent. Egypt,Saudi Arabia and Syria were once pillars of pan-Arabism but Syria has drifted into an ever-tighter orbit around Iran,a country viewed by America’s Arab allies as an alien meddler in their affairs. Mr Assad’s older counterparts have also chafed at his sponsoring of Hizbullah,Lebanon’s well-armed Shia movement,and of Hamas,the Palestinian Islamist party. The Saudis and Egyptians see these non-state actors as proxies for revolutionary Iran,whose brashness in insisting on fighting Israel may raise cheers from the Arab public but risks sucking their governments into unwanted conflict.
Like America itself,its Arab friends would like nothing better than to wean Syria off its alliance with Iran. Such has been the subtext of a growing barrage of Western overtures to Mr Assad,including a visit to Syria by the most senior American envoys since George Bush withdrew his ambassador in 2004. Britain’s recent decision to open talks with Hizbullah is part of the same approach. Syria has so far denied any intention of distancing itself from Iran,judging that its strong ties,dating back to the 1980s,have served it well in strengthening its weak hand against Israel,which has occupied a slice of Syrian territory,the Golan Heights,since 1967.
But the sudden defrosting of Syrian relations with the Egyptians and Saudis,whose own rhetoric against Iran has lately become more vehement,suggests that a far-reaching realignment could be in the making. Syria’s attachment to Iran is tactical,not strategic,judges an Egyptian diplomat,pointing to the ideological disjuncture between Mr Assad’s secular regime and Iran’s aggressively Islamist one.
Cash always helps
Money may be a lever: the collapse in oil prices,plus rapidly dwindling Syrian production of the stuff,confronts Mr Assad with a fast-approaching budget crisis. Iran,mired in deficits,is in no position to help,compared to the still-flush Arab petro-monarchies. Besides,with Iran itself signalling a cautious welcome to better relations with America,the nimble Syrians are wary of ending up as the region’s sole remaining wheel on the axis of evil.
Subtle shifts in Syrian policy are already detectable. The Syrian leader is likely to have infuriated Iran recently by quietly declaring his support for the United Arab Emirates in its long-running territorial dispute with the Islamic Republic over three islands in the Gulf. He has also said he would welcome direct peace talks with Israel on condition that America agrees to sponsor them and that Israel understands that he is looking for a comprehensive peace,not a separate deal that would leave Palestinians in the lurch.
No less significantly,Mr Assad appears to be edging away from his previous all-out backing for Hamas,whose Damascus-based leaders have often sounded more intransigent than their beleaguered peers in Gaza. Mr Assad recently stressed that he intended to keep an equal distance from all the Palestinian factions and to encourage them to pursue reconciliation between themselves in order to strengthen their international position.
This must please Egypt,whose tiring labours at this task may at last bear fruit. Representatives of Hamas,its secular rival Fatah,and smaller Palestinian parties gathered this week in Cairo for what Egyptian officials portray as make-or-break talks to forge a transitional government ahead of an election next January. At daggers drawn since Hamas followed its election triumph over Fatah in 2006 with a pre-emptive coup in Gaza in 2007,the rivals have feuded bitterly and violently.
But delegates to the Cairo meetings,who were split into committees to tackle specific issues,reported cordiality and progress. If,as the Egyptians and Fatah would like but Hamas has so far opposed,the Palestinians concoct a cabinet of technocrats rather than ideologues,Gazans may get their aid and peace talks with Israel may resume. And perhaps,when Arab kings and presidents meet in Qatar later this month,their smiles will be genuine.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009