MOSCOW — The timing of the Geneva 2 conference about the future of Syria’s chemical weapons has changed once again. According to our sources, it is probably not going to be mid-November — as Russia and the U.S. had first indicated — but rather at the end of that month, or maybe even in December. One of the key members of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council, recently announced that it would not participate in the conference, although no explanation for the boycott has been provided.
The United States was given the task of convincing all of the important Syrian opposition groups to participate in the Geneva peace talks. After the Syrian National Council said it wouldn’t, Russian diplomats didn’t hesitate to accuse their American counterparts of being ineffective. “Our partners have assured us that all of the opposition would be brought together and would participate in the conference,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “My colleague John Kerry has once again said that they are actively working on it and will have results soon. But there are no results yet.”
Russia’s job was to bring the Syrian government to the conference. The foreign ministry says it has done its job and that the Syrian government would be ready for Geneva, even if the conference were to take place tomorrow.
Despite the delays, Moscow is hoping that the conference does happen, and a source at the foreign ministry says it should be as soon as possible. “We need to work out a political roadmap towards regularization of the situation in Syria,” explained the source from the foreign ministry. “Once we have agreed on a roadmap, we need to quickly drop everything else, come together and get rid of the terrorists that have already established themselves too much in Syria. There is still a chance to prevent them from taking control of the country.”
At the same time, the operation to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons continues. According to a Russian diplomatic source, experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who have been to Syria say that it will not be possible to destroy the entire Syrian arsenal on Syrian territory. By the middle of this week the experts had seen 11 of the 20 Syrian chemical weapons’ sites that Damascus has declared. “The Syrian government has already agreed to allow a part of the chemical arsenal to be destroyed in another country,” the diplomat said.
But where to dismantle?
Russia has refused to allow destruction of Syrian chemical weapons on its territory. Now the U.S. is charged with finding a country that is willing to do the dirty work. The U.S. first looked to two of Syria’s neighbors, Turkey and Jordan. But neither was overjoyed at the idea, which carries a long list of risks, particularly environmental ones. “The economies of both of those countries are already feeling pressure from Syrian refugees,” explained Andrei Baklitskii, an expert from the Center for Policy Studies in Russia. “Neither the Jordanian king nor the Turkish prime minister has a reason to agree to bringing in chemical weapons, which would be very unpopular with the citizens.”
“Negotiations with Turkey and Jordan are ongoing,” insisted a source close to the U.S. State Department. “But we are also investigating other options.” The source refused to name other countries being considered.
According to Baklitskii, it’s quite unlikely that other governments in the region will be able to help. “Israel is not a member of OPCW, Lebanon is teetering on the brink of civil war, as is Libya, where an establishment for destroying chemical weapons has already been built,” he explained. “There is some information that the U.S. has informally approached a number of European countries, including Albania, Belgium, Norway and France. All of those countries, except Norway, have experience destroying chemical weapons, but there have not yet been any positive answers.”
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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