Across the Bay

Friday, October 27, 2006

The US, the Saudis, and the Syrian Opposition

Since the report came out about the plans of the Syrian opposition party, the National Salvation Front (NSF), to open an office in DC, there have been a number of interesting developments and statements.

First was a meeting in Saudi Arabia between King Abdullah (and Crown Prince Sultan) and the NSF's Abdel Halim Khaddam.

Khaddam confirmed the meeting took place. He reiterated that the regime is "not reformable or viable."

That it was King Abdullah -- as opposed to, say, Prince Bandar, Saud al-Faysal, or a lowly official -- who met with Khaddam is itself meant as a message.

But back to the US. An unnamed state department official told UPI that the US administration does not mind the NSF opening an office in DC and that the US "is ready for dialogue with any Syrian gorup or party that respects the rule of law and the principles of democracy and the principles of peaceful and legal opposition."

Moreover, a source from the NSF revealed that White House officials, including Michael Doran, Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs at the NSC, met yesterday (10/26) with two NSF representatives, Husam al-Dairi and Ammar Abdulhamid. According to an NSF source, they discussed mechanisms of democratic change in Syria.

The source claimed that the US officials said that the US did not shut the door on negotiating with the regime but only if it accepts to enact democratic change. But "any dialogue with the Syrian regime will not be at the expense of the opposition or democratic change." However, the US officials reportedly said that their experience with the Syrian regime is not positive when it came to behavior change.

It was also reported that the officials said that the White House welcomes the opening of the NSF office in DC. The NSF representatives reportedly told the officials that the NSF does not plan to form a government in exile, but a transitional government when the time is right in order to prevent a vacuum in Syria.

Finally, there were rumors that the Saudis also met with Rifaat Assad. The diplomatic source who first leaked to UPI the news of Khaddam's meeting with King Abdullah had said that the King and the Crown Prince would also be meeting with Rifaat.

However, a source close to Rifaat denied the meeting took place and said that Rifaat was indeed invited but "refused" to go because of the presence of Khaddam in Saudi Arabia. He also denied that Saudi Arabia was trying to get Khaddam and Rifaat together, and added that any cooperation with him is rejected and impossible.

The source added that Rifaat does not have any contacts with the US, but claimed that he had received three invitations from the State Department under Colin Powell. The state department official quoted above denied the authenticity of the claim of the state department inviting Rifaat, adding that he never heard of such an invitation.

The Syrian regime has been trying to woo Rifaat back into the fold, and according to the source, a regime delegation was recently dispatched to meet with him but no agreement has been reached between them.