Saudi Arabia, Egypt Call for Peaceful Handover in Syria

Saudi Arabia and Egypt yesterday called for a “peaceful handover” of power in Syria, signaling closer cooperation as violence mounts with more than 60,000 people reported killed since the protests against President Bashar al-Assad began nearly two years ago.

“A peaceful exit is an Arab and international demand,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal told reporters yesterday in Riyadh after talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr. “It is up to the Syrian people to decide the conditions of the exit from power” of Assad.

Amr called for “stepping up the efforts to achieve a peaceful handover of power.” Assad will address his nation today to discuss developments in the region, according to Syrian state television.

Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy, and Egypt, the most populous Arab state, for the first time made a joint call for Assad to step down, signaling closer cooperation on the Syrian situation, Khalid al-Dakhil, a professor of political studies at King Saud University in Riyadh, said.

“They see how important the fall of the Syrian regime is on an Arab and regional level,” he said in a telephone interview.

Saudi Arabia stayed away from a foreign ministers’ meeting on Syria held in September in Cairo at the invitation of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, with the participation of Shiite Iran, which supports Assad, a member of the Alawite sect affliated with Shiite Islam, and Turkey, which supports the rebellion. Participants failed to agree on a compromise.

Region’s Future

With the future of the Assad regime in doubt, analysts have begun contemplating how his fall might affect a region upended by the two years of uprisings -- some democratic and peaceful, others violent -- referred to as the Arab Spring.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University and former U.S. State Department official, predicted that Syria would “split into multiple regions” and that, even if Assad falls, there won’t be a government to replace him by the end of this year.

“You’re going to have a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria that is going to create major trouble for Turkey,” Slaughter said in taped remarks on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program scheduled for broadcast today. Turkey has a substantial population that is ethnically Kurdish.

The refugee flow from the Syrian civil war is “already starting to destabilize Jordan just in terms of inability to cope,” Slaughter said. Lebanon faces Syrian-inspired conflict between Assad’s Alawites and Sunni Muslims, she said.

Pilot Defects

At least 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict that began as peaceful protests, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said Jan. 2.

A Syrian pilot defected yesterday to Turkey and landed with his MiG-23 military jet at Adana airport, Al-Jazeera television reported.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Faisal renewed accusations that Iran is “interfering in the internal affairs of the states of the region,” and criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, its Shiite Muslim neighbor, without naming him.

“Iraq’s security will not stabilize before it moves away from its sectarian policy,” he said.

Iraqi opponents of Maliki have been holding street protests in various regions with mostly Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations. Many Sunnis, Kurds and followers of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr have demanded to share more power.

Twenty-one Iranians aboard two boats were arrested by the Saudi coast guard off the Saudi city of Al Khafji in the Persian Gulf, Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat said. Coast guard spokesman Colonel Khalid al-Arqoubi told the newspaper the detainees will be investigated to establish whether they are fishermen.

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