A 'secret' meeting with Israeli intelligence to normalise ties with Bashar al-Assad to undermine Turkish regional influence and enhance ties with Israel - is this just the tip of the iceberg?
A ‘secret’ meeting was held between the director of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt recently, according to a leak initially reported by the Middle East Eye.
The meeting discussed a plan between Israel and Arab nations to normalise ties with Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, and restore Syria’s status in the Arab League in a bid to reduce Turkey and Iran’s regional influence.
Dr Ali Bakeer a political analyst and researcher spoke to TRT World on the motives behind the meeting.
“It’s very likely that officials from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt met with the Mossad chief. Relations between Riyadh, Abu-Dhabi, in particular, from one end and Israel on the other, have been warming up considerably over the last few years mainly through efforts by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman,” he says.
In attendance were several senior intelligence officials from the four countries, including Mossad Director Yossi Cohen.
“I don’t see how Tel Aviv will benefit from pushing Ankara towards Tehran, when their priority is countering Iran,” he says.
But Dr Bakeer doesn’t believe that countering Turkey ranks high on Israel’s priorities.
“For MBZ, MBS, and Sisi, Turkey is the real problem given its position as a leading regional power with a Sunni majority, and its ability to inspire people throughout the Middle East to seek change. The very same change that these countries have actively challenged and opposed since the onset of the Arab revolts of 2011.”
This is by no means the first meeting between Cohen and Arab state officials.
In early October last year, former Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubeir joined voices with the Mossad director at a New York meeting, calling for the overthrow of Iran. That meeting was also attended by Yusuf al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States, who called the Iranian threat “existential."
Other notable attendees of that meeting, included US National Security Advisor John Bolton, and former CIA director turned Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo.
Ambassador Otaiba himself reported running into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a ‘chance encounter’, where they also happened to discuss Iran, according to the Associated Press.
It would seem that Saudi Arabia is spearheading the rapprochement with Israel, following a diplomatic leak in mid-September that claimed Saudi Arabia had purchased the Israeli Iron Dome defense system to defend itself against Houthi rebel missile attacks.
Saudi Arabia also reportedly purchased more than $250 million-worth of spy equipment from Israel, according to an exclusive report from Al-Khaleej Online.
Not an isolated incident
Recent events, however, point to a broader trend of normalising ties with Israel, largely kept under wraps out of fear of public backlash from within the Arab world.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, appeared in a controversial 60 Minutes interview aired by CBS that he initially tried to prevent from airing. In the interview, Sisi confirmed that Egypt’s military is working closely with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula.
In a transcript of the interview, Sisi confirmed that cooperation with Israel was at its “closest” and “deepest."
Egypt is not the only Arab state to take steps toward normalising ties with Israel. In late October, Netanyahu met with the Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said al Said during an official visit, coinciding with the visit of Miri Regev, the Israeli Minister of Culture, to the UAE.
Regev has been accused of racism on multiple counts and is a hardliner proponent of assassination.
Bahrain publicly backed Israel's in a tweet by its top diplomat in May 2018.
The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself has previously stated in an interview that he believes Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land, marking a radical departure from a policy of non-recognition set down by his predecessors.
Secret decisions, cloaks and daggers
A number of resolutions were passed by officials at the secret meeting. Among them, was the agreement that instead of Iran, Turkey represented a threat as a major military rival in the region; going on to develop plans to counter Turkey’s influence in the region.
The Mossad director informed the gathering that while Iran could be militarily contained, Turkey had a much greater capability.
“Iranian power is fragile. The real threat comes from Turkey," he said.
The secret gathering went on to coordinate talks between the Taliban and US officials, held a week later in Abu Dhabi.
Another outcome was an agreement on the need to “control the Sunni card” in Iraq and to reduce Turkey’s influence in the Alliance of the National Axis, which forms the largest bloc of Sunni Iraqi parliamentary deputies.
Shortly after, Mohammed al Halbousi was pressured by Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Iraq, during the latter’s trip to Riyadh on December 17, to reduce Turkey’s influence in the alliance or withdraw from it altogether.
Halbousi went on to block Saba al Tai’s nomination for Minister of Education in Iraq.
Another member of the Alliance however, was nominated.
The covert meeting also discussed restoring diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime. In the meeting, they conceded that Assad’s reliance on Iranian militias during the Syrian civil war meant he was not likely to abandon his Iranian allies.
So they took a different angle.
“They did not expect Bashar to break relations with Iran, but they wanted Bashar to use the Iranians rather than be used by them,” one Gulf official briefed on the discussions told Middle East Eye.
“The message was: ‘Return back to how your father treated the Iranians, at least as an equal at the table, rather than subservient to Iranian interests.'
Following the secret intelligence meeting, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir visited Damascus on December 16, making it the first official visit to Syria by an Arab leader since 2011.
Ali al Shamsi, Deputy Head of Emirati intelligence, also visited Damascus. On December 27, the UAE announced that its embassy would be reopened in Syria after eight years.
On the same day, Bahrain announced it would restore its diplomatic mission in Damascus as well.
Only a few days earlier, Assad’s Special Security Adviser, Ali Mamlouk, visited Cairo, setting the stage for a possible normalisation of relations.
Sources speaking to the Middle East Eye, assert that Egypt’s primary concern is to ensure the Syrian regime establishes Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood as its primary enemies.
This would be in exchange for Syria re-joining the Arab League, and Arab support for Syria in countering the Turkish military presence in North Syria, where Turkey is engaging the YPG, which is the Syrian wing of the PKK terror organisation.
Finally, the heads of intelligence agreed to support militant groups against Turkey’s operation to expel the YPG from Northern Syria. This came alongside an agreement to enhance cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and stand in the way of any reconciliation between the regional stakeholders and Turkey.
“I think the plans to counter Turkey will create more division in the region, more instability and ultimately will end up creating a strong bond between ‘primitive’ Arab regimes and chaos in the region. This will utterly give Iran more space to manoeuver and prevail,” says Dr Bakeer.
He adds, “If the initial plan for Israel and the Arab regimes is to counter Turkey, it will ironically be counterproductive, and this brings into questions the logic of countering Iran, given that it will create more incentives for Ankara and Tehran to work together. The 2017 Gulf crisis initiated by UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt is a clear example.”
While the covert meeting marks a definite radical change in Arab-Israeli relations, it also reveals a deep and vested Saudi Arabian interest in countering Turkey by any means, even if it means redrawing its alliances, though perhaps to the detriment of the region as a whole.