Recent name-calling between Syria and Saudi Arabia is rubbing salt in worsening wounds, writes Sherine Bahaa
"Virtually paralysed," was how Syrian Vice-President Farouk Al-Sharaa described the regional role of Saudi Arabia. In a biting speech at Damascus University, Sharaa hinted at the kingdom's failure to sustain the Palestinian unity deal forged in the Saudi holy city of Mecca last February. Sharaa even claimed that the outline of the deal, hailed at the time as a Saudi diplomatic victory, was hammered out in Damascus adding that it could have been signed in Syria but the Syrians agreed to let the signing take place in Mecca.
These are only samples of recent "undiplomatic" statements issued by Syrian officials against their Arab counterparts.
Defending his country, Emad Fawzi Shueibi, director of the Centre for Data and Strategic Studies in Damascus said that what Al-Sharaa said did not deserve all this hassle by the Saudis, besides it was denied later. Shueibi was referring to an anonymous statement issued by Syria's official news agency which said that Al-Sharaa's comments had been "misreported" and stressed its desire to heal the rift with Riyadh.
However that response did not ease the tension. Nearly a week after the original statements by Al-Sharaa were made public, Shueibi said "...Syria stopped talking about it and until today the Saudis are making a great deal out of it. Moreover, what our official said did not cross the line while the Saudi statement says it went far beyond the norms."
Shueibi was referring to the unusually harsh statement by the conservative Muslim kingdom which lashed out against Al-Sharaa and the policy of Syria. "The government of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has followed with great surprise the distasteful statements recently made by Al-Sharaa, which included numerous lies and fallacies aimed at harming us," said the statement carried by the official Saudi press agency.
"Talk about the paralysis of the kingdom's Arab and Islamic role does not come from a rational and prudent person, as this role is well known to everyone. Perhaps Al-Sharaa made a slip of the tongue and meant by paralysis the policy he speaks for," said the statement.
Shueibi believes that Saudi Arabia has contrived the whole diplomatic row. "We [Syrian officials] received reports that Saudi Arabia is going to the autumn meetings [initiated by United States President George Bush] to finalise an agreement that would dilute the whole of the Palestinian cause and if Syria is there the deal will not go [through]. So it was Saudi Arabia that asked the US president to exclude Syria from the meetings."
True or not, the remarkable change of tone in Syrian rhetoric cannot be ignored.
Arabs still remember Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's famous speech after the victory of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah in last summer's war with Israel, in which he blamed Arab leaders for their impotence calling them "half men" for their failure to act to stop the violence. Syria is known for its strong anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, but, Damascus rarely criticises Arab states.
This is no longer the case. Maybe Al-Assad did not want to sound like his father, the former president Hafez Al-Assad and has introduced a sharper tone in his speeches on Arab regimes and their positions. His late father maintained generally good relations with other Arabs despite sharp differences with the Saudis over several issues, including the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.
"Although we had our differences, he [Hafez Al-Assad] always maintained good relations with the kingdom," said one Saudi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.
Things have changed since then. Today Syria is out of Lebanon, and is blamed for its former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri's assassination in 2005. It has been given the cold shoulder by its Arab neighbours, being criticised for falling under the spell of its Shia ally Iran.
In all these developments, the Syrians seem to see the hidden hand of Saudi Arabia. Syria feels it is being muscled out by the Saudis from areas like Lebanon, where it traditionally has held sway. Hariri was a close Saudi ally, and it was Saudi Arabia that pushed the idea of a tribunal to find out who killed the former premiere. A major point of contention are Saudi fears of the growing influence of Iran.
Whatever the reality, what has happened between the two states has soured an already strained relation between the two heavyweight regional players -- one of them aligned with Washington and the other with Tehran. "What we're seeing is a symptom of the rivalry between the United States and Iran, and it is being played out in different forms," said Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow at the Washington-based Institute of Current World Affairs.
According to a Syria analyst, Damascus knows it is now "virtually impossible" to mend fences with Riyadh without outside mediation. But now, there are concerns the Syrian- Saudi spat could have negative repercussions for countries where each has a major stake, such as Iraq and Lebanon.
"Syria has a lot of interest in the Sunni areas of Iraq ," said Tabler. "This is an area where the interests of Syria and Saudi Arabia overlap," he added. Tabler is also editor-in-chief of the Damascus-based Syria Today magazine.
The dispute could also have grave consequences in Lebanon, where a new president is anticipated to be elected before 23 November.
Syria and Iran openly support the Hizbullah-led opposition while Saudi Arabia strongly supports the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora. Some worry that the lack of consensus on a new president could create a power vacuum or even lead to two rival governments.
This situation must be resolved before the next Arab summit in March 2008 scheduled to take place in Damascus. So the question remains: will someone step in at the right moment to save the situation before any further deterioration occurs?