Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New alliance emerging in the Middle East

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TEL AVIV -- Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Tehran last week has revealed a new regional element that has been largely ignored by Western observers. Assad's visit was officially described as a goodwill trip to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his re-election as Iran's president. But what came out following Assad's meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was an idea for an unofficial quadripartite alliance between Syria and Iran, with Turkey and Iraq joining.

Israeli sources anticipated such a proposal. They said that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was not ignorant to this idea. While officially struggling to join the European Union, Turkey has begun to accept the possibility that its European dreams are unlikely to materialize. At the same time, Turkey's hopes for a mediating role in peace talks between Israel and Syria, are also beginning to fade. Israel now insists on direct negotiations with Damascus.

Assad's visit to Tehran was a kind of a slap in the face to President Barack Obama. Assad is the only Arab (or foreign) head of state to congratulate Ahmadinejad in person in Tehran.

In anticipation of Obama's major foreign policy speech at the UN General Assembly in New York in mid-September, Assad decided to keep all his foreign policy options open. Hence, and contrary to his "neutral" stance in the Lebanese parliamentary elections in early June, Assad is now very much, and discreetly, involved in the coalition-making efforts in Beirut. Syria is supporting its traditional allies -- Hezbollah and General Michel Aoun's party -- with the aim of giving them a practical veto-power over all future government decisions.

Such a position takes Lebanon back to the status-quo-ante situation and openly contradicts Obama's ideas for solving the Lebanese crisis. These Syrian moves are interpreted in Israel as a preparation for Obama's future UN policy speech, which would imply an effort to reduce Iran's influence in the region.

Thus, the talks about a quadripartite alliance between Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq, are aimed to pre-empt such an outcome. The four countries already co-operate in various fields, especially since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. All four have common interests in suppressing Kurdish national aspirations. All four also suspect that an American withdrawal from Iraq would exclude withdrawal from Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is a red flag for Iran that could find itself squeezed between the American troops in Kurdistan and Afghanistan.

This is also a red flag for Turkey and Iraq, which fear that under the umbrella of the American troops, the Iraqi Kurds would incorporate the oil-rich Kirkouk into their province.

Finally, a quadripartite alliance would also be a red flag for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, whose ability to help solve the Lebanese and Palestinian crises would be considerably weakened.

Indeed, and despite intense Egyptian efforts, the reconciliation talks in Cairo between the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Hamas and the pro-western Fatah, have been again postponed until after the month of Ramadan, which began Saturday.

Obama, however, appears determined to announce his Middle East peace plan next month in New York in the presence of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu left Monday for official visits to Germany and Great Britain. While in London, Netanyahu is expected to meet with the U.S. envoy, George Mitchell, and will hear from him about Obama's peace ideas, as conveyed last week to Egypt's President Mubarak.

Realizing the wider regional implications, Israel appears ready to co-operate with Obama's vision for Middle East peace.

Sam Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent, based in Tel Aviv.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2009 A11

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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