15.09.2012 Author: Vitaly Bilan

The “Islamic Quartet” and Syria

htmlimageMursi’s new regional aspirations

At the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit held in Mecca in mid-August, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi made a tremendous effort to restore Egypt’s image as the “key” state in the Middle East. He proposed creating a so-called “Islamic Quartet” consisting of the four “most influential” countries in the Muslim world — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and, of course, Egypt itself.

The new Egyptian leader also expressed the strange idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation is a prerequisite for the Islamic Quartet to begin its work, and that “the most powerful states in the Muslim world” would interact directly with the Syrian people to find solutions to the conflict.

There was little reaction to the idea at first: Riyadh virtually ignored Mursi’s proposal, and Tehran was not particularly enthusiastic about supporting it. But ultimately the potential members of the Quartet were persuaded to meet. Remarkably, they did not even wait for Mursi to announce Assad’s resignation.

On September 10, the deputy foreign ministers of the Islamic Quartet expressed support for the mission of Lakhdar Brahimi, the new special envoy of the UN and the Arab League for Syria, at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Club, and, significantly, they called for ending the Syrian conflict using political methods, not military. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was quick to formulate “principles of joint action” for the group.

Thus, the Quartet has begun work, although for now it is largely declaratory in nature. But apparently there is nothing surprising about that. After all, each of the four “most influential” countries of the Islamic ecumene are not averse to conducting PR on Syria to strengthen their position in the region.

The interests of the parties

I addressed Cairo’s “Napoleonic” plans to restore its Middle East position in a previous article for New Eastern Outlook. Everything is generally clear with Egypt. Having squandered all of its regional “bonuses” over the past “revolutionary” year, it is now looking for any excuse to propose new Middle East initiatives.

The initially tepid response to Tehran’s proposal to form the Islamic Quartet could be due to the fact that President Ahmadinejad spoke at the OIC summit before Mursi and therefore had no opportunity to respond to the Egyptian initiative. That would suggest that the inertia of Iran’s foreign policy “bureaucracy” was triggered. But on reflection, Tehran apparently decided that, despite the ambiguity of the Syrian issue, an image as a peacemaker amidst the looming threat of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be very handy for the country to have.

Moreover, the idea came from Egypt — a country that is key to Iran in light of the threat of airstrikes on its nuclear facilities, particularly as a potential springboard for attacks on Israel’s rear areas from the Sinai Peninsula. It is not for nothing that Tehran recently has been untiringly declaring its intention to open a new page in its relations with Cairo since they deteriorated sharply in February 1979, when Iran overthrew its monarchy, which was friendly to Egypt, and instituted “Islamic rule.”

Of course, Tehran’s flirtation with Cairo does not please Riyadh — possibly Iran’s chief enemy in the Arab world.

Realizing this, Egypt’s current government recently decided to engage in political “blackmail” with Saudi Arabia. Given its interest in major Saudi investments, Cairo will surely begin using an alliance with Iran to methodically “spook” Riyadh. It is also possible that Egypt’s leaders have adopted a wait-and-see attitude and will watch to see whose “petrodollars” prevail: Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s.

It is quite possible that the danger of an alliance between Egypt and Iran has forced supporters of the most radical measures against the Assad regime — the Saudis — to agree to the wording that came out of the Cairo meeting of the Islamic Quartet about ending the Syrian conflict by political means.

As for Turkey, it generally considers itself to be the chief “moderator” (at least in the region) on Syria. Therefore, Turkey will participate in all Middle East initiatives on Syria, if only to prevent alternative decision-making centers from forming.

In general, the Quartet had to begin its work. The question is, will it do more than issue appeals and declarations?

What comes next?

In his assessment of the initial actions by the Islamic Quartet, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich stressed that its meetings can make an important contribution to efforts by the international community to shift the military confrontation in Syria onto a political track and help Brahimi’s mission to succeed. He further emphasized that the Quartet’s principles of joint action are actually consistent with the basic provisions of the Geneva communiqué of the Action Group for Syria that was adopted on 30 June.

Thus, in its search for ways to resolve Syrian conflict Moscow suddenly got an ally that, although situational, also favors an immediate end to the bloodshed, the rejection of foreign military intervention, and the initiation of a political process involving various groups and layers of Syrian society in order to establish a democratic and pluralistic political system in Syria.

It is difficult to predict how “long playing” the Quartet’s coordinated activities will be. How long, for example, will Saudi Arabia and Iran be able to tolerate sitting at the same table, and will Turkey long be able to watch its regional competitors trying to “dilute” its impact on the Syrian crisis?

However, even if everything somehow works out, that does not guarantee the initiative will succeed. After all, as the classical Russian author Ivan Andreevich Krylov said about a different quartet, “And you, my friends, no matter your positions,/Will never be musicians!”

With all due respect to the countries of the Islamic Quartet, it should be admitted that the “key” to resolving the Syrian problem lies not in Ankara, Tehran, Riyadh or Cairo, and not even in all those capitals combined. The powers that be need to work it out: Moscow and Washington, obviously.

Vitaly Nikolayevich Bilan holds a Candidate of Science (History) degree and is an expert on the Middle East. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.