If Putin is able to persuade Saudi King Salman to accept Assad’s return to the Arab League summit — and calm the animus between Iran and Saudi Arabia — the Russian leader’s reputation in the Arab world will soar.
Secret contacts currently underway, led by Russia and in advance of the Arab League summit later this month, may bring about a sea change in the Arab world’s relationship with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
According to its sources, the Israeli intelligence news service, DEBKAfile, reports that, on Saturday 25 February, Egypt’s parliamentary committee for Arab affairs called for the return of Syria to the Arab League.
This step symbolized an initiative launched by Putin and a number of Middle East leaders to invite Syrian President Bashar Assad to the 29 March Arab Summit in Amman; and this, only five years after Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League because of the country’s savage civil war which was at its height.
Three leaders are spearheading the moves for Assad’s reacceptance by the Arab community, whether together or separately: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah. All three hope to see a historic handshake and greetings between Assad and Saudi King Salman.
If this happens, it would signify reconciliation between Saudi Arabia (which backed the Syrian rebels) and the Assad regime.
But for Assad, it would mark collective Arab recognition of his personal victory. Few expected him to come out alive from nearly seven sevens of cruel warfare, first sparked by the Arab Spring of December 2010.
Putin’s interest in this epic event is self-evident.
When he launched a major Russian intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015, then-President Barack Obama predicted that the Russian army would sink in the Syrian quagmire.
The Russian leader proved Obama wrong. If he is now able to persuade King Salman to accept Assad’s return to the Arab summit, Putin’s reputation in the Arab world will soar.
The plan is for the Syrian ruler to arrive in Amman armed with a Russian safe-conduct guarantee, aboard a Russian military aircraft which would fly him there and back from Russia’s Syrian military base at Hmeimim.
DEBKAfile’s intelligence and Middle Eastern sources report a flurry of arrangements for the event. They include military officers and intelligence agents from Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria flying back and forth between Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Damascus and the Russian command in Syria.
Its sources also disclose that US officials have hinted in informal contacts with these parties that President Donald Trump is not averse to the initiative, although his public position on the subject must await the final determination of his Middle East policy at large.
Because his Middle Policy is still a work in progress, the US president scarcely mentioned the Middle East in his speech to Congress Tuesday night, 28 February. His only reference was to Iran’s ballistic missiles.
Putin may well take advantage of the still-absent leadership of the US in the Middle East. While it remains on the sidelines, Putin’s project appears to be far-reaching.
Putin’s goal is to enlist Iran to the Arab peace process with Assad, and then expanding it to include a patching up of the quarrel between Tehran and Riyadh.
This was the reason for this week’s intensive comings and goings in the region. They included Kuwaiti and Iranian officials talking quietly in Tehran, visits by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to Kuwait and Oman on 15 February, and a trip by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir to Baghdad on 25 February, when he sat down with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
They were all playing their part in Russia’s plan for making Saudi reconciliation with Assad a halfway mark towards making peace between the oil kingdom and Iran as well.