Jan 06, 2016

    Row between Iran and Saudi could undo Syrian peace efforts

    THE deepening crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran could threaten fragile efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian war, which has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, analysts say.

    "The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia will definitely have a negative impact" on the peace process, said Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian opposition-in-exile.

    "The negotiations were already difficult, if not impossible, and this conflict is only going to lead to positions becoming more entrenched," he told Agence France-Presse.

    On opposite sides of the Sunni-Shi'ite faultline in Islam, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also key players in the Syrian conflict, respectively backing or opposing the regime in Damascus.

    The bust-up is the result of years of seething hostility between the Persian and Arab rivals, who have fought for leadership of the region through proxy wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, where Riyadh is directly involved militarily in the fight against Shi'ite Huthi rebels.

    Both countries are also deeply involved in the war in Syria, where Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad and has supplied "military advisers" to his regime.

    The Saudis have called for Mr Assad to go and are giving financial and military support to rebel organisations that include fundamentalist groups.

    In Syria, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry "has been one of the driving factors from the start", said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

    As last year came to a close, tentative efforts to broker peace in Syria appeared to have had a glimmer of success.

    But this latest crisis threatens to derail the process, commentators said. Noah Bonsey, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the deterioration in relations "will further diminish already low expectations" for talks expected to take place late this month.

    "Ultimately, reaching a political resolution in Syria would require key states backing each side to make reciprocal concessions, and pressure their Syrian allies to do the same. For now, things are moving in the opposite direction," said Mr Bonsey.

    At talks in Vienna in October and November, all the players in the conflict gathered around the same table for the first time. Western diplomats noted the barely concealed animosity between the Saudis and the Iranians at those discussions.

    But, one diplomat said brightly, "at least they are talking to each other". That, however, was before diplomatic ties were severed.

    The Vienna parlay broke ground by drawing up an international roadmap, which was unanimously adopted by the United Nations Security Council on Dec 19. It foresees talks between the different sides this month, the establishment of a transitional government within six months and elections within 18 months in a plan supported by Iran and Russia, which also backs Mr Assad.

    "We made progress by getting all the protagonists back to the negotiating table, and the UN resolution showed the commitment of the international community. It is essential we keep up the negotiations, but the process has just been weakened," said a source deeply involved in the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    Karim Bitar, a researcher at the Iris think-tank in Paris, pointed out that the conflict between Riyadh and Teheran only adds to tensions that had already mounted with the death of influential Syrian rebel chief Zahran Alloush, killed in a regime air strike late last month.

    "This escalation is going to make any chance of progress on Syria more complicated," Mr Bitar said.