Saudis and Egyptians talk with Syria

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LISA MULLINS: The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria aren't exactly enemies, but they have been at odds recently over a number of regional issues. Well, today the leaders of all three countries met in Saudi Arabia to try to patch things up. The World's Aaron Schachter reports.

AARON SCHACHTER: Just over a month ago, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria were sniping at each other over Israel's war in Gaza. This time last year, they were barely on speaking terms. And in 2006, Syria's President Bashir Al Assad called the leaders of the two other countries �half men� for not challenging the US and Israel over Israel's month-long war with Hezbollah. When former president George W, Bush lumped Syria in with the �axis of evil� that sentiment was taken on board by US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But that was then; this is now. Afshin Molavi is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He says Saudi Arabia has two main foreign policy goals, and it needs serious help to achieve them.

AFSHIN MOLAVI: Number 1 is pursuit of the Arab peace initiative offering a comprehensive peace deal with Israel. The second issue is containment of the Iranian challenge.

SCHACHTER: Syrian analysts argue it isn't only for those two reasons that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are wooing the Assad government. There's also the question of how to deal with Israel's new right-wing government. And there's Iraq. Samuel Moubayed is Editor-in-Chief of the Syrian magazine �Forward�. He says a post-US Iraq could go one of two ways: either Iran fills the vacuum left by America or Saudi Arabia does. The lynchpin for the West, Moubayed says, is Syria.

MOUBAYED: If Syria and Saudi Arabia decide to cooperate, they would have plenty of common denominators. Both are opposed to religiously driven politicians like Nouri Al-Maliki running Iraq. Both are opposed to an autonomous Shiite district in southern Iraq. Both are opposed to continuation of the de-Ba'ath-ication laws and keeping the Sunnis out of government.

SCHACHTER: But there are significant obstacles separating Syria from the western allied Arab countries. Syria is a major supporter of both Hezbollah and Hamas, which has its official headquarters in Damascus. Syrian President Assad has cozied up to Iran in recent years for political and financial support, and the regime is widely blamed for the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister, the Saudi and US-banned Rafik Hariri. Syria denies any involvement. Jahad El-Kareem Juvai is a Syrian author critical of the regime. He says Saudi Arabia and Egypt probably want Syria's help solving the feud between Palestinian faction Hamas and Fatah. Juvai says that's fine, but he's suspicious of Syria's intentions. Juvai says, �It would be great if meetings like the one today in Riyadh reflected a new start for Syria and Saudi Arabia, but I doubt it. I don't believe Syria is serious about Palestinian dialogue,� he says, �and I think Syria is just buying time while it helps to strengthen an anti-Western resistance alliance that includes Iran, Syria, Qatar, and Algeria.� But the meeting with the Saudis and Egyptian is just the latest in a flurry of political activity involving Damascus. The Syrian capital has played host in the past month to American diplomats, a host of Middle Eastern envoys, and a representative of the European Union. It's a little hard to believe that Syria is just stalling. But Samir Al-Taki of the Orient Center for International Studies says Syria is playing for time, in a way. It's waiting for the Obama administration to get fully engaged in the region.

AL-TAKI: This hyperactivity, grammatically speaking, is mainly because there is a realization that this is � we will be waiting for Americans to elaborate a full strategy, a full approach regarding Iran, and then decide about where to go, either towards sanctions or toward a deal. All those we need time.

SCHACHTER: Time, Al-Taki says, the Middle East doesn't really have. For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter.