anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zor 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An opinion piece in the Saudi-sponsored regional newspaper Asharq al-Awsat this
week was predictably fulsome in its praise for Riyadh’s decision to remove its
ambassador from Syria.
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“Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah
Bin abd al Aziz,” the article said, would stand with the Syrian people, with
humanity in general, with the “dear Arab sister state” of Syria, and against the
“brutal suppression” being carried out by the Assad regime. Kuwait and Bahrain
rapidly followed suit in recalling their own ambassadors from Damascus for
Connoisseurs of regional political rhetoric swiftly
ridiculed the Saudis’ apparent late conversion to the cause of human rights.
They noted that Riyadh earlier this year had organized a military force that
moved to swiftly crush an uprising in Bahrain. In that other dear Arab sister
state, it seems, the Saudis were the enthusiastic perpetrators, rather than the
critics, of “bloody suppression.”
The critics, however, missed the point.
In both Bahrain and in Syria, the Saudis are engaged in power politics, not
moral edification. And in both cases, the rationale behind their response is to
be sought in their ongoing contest with Iran.
In Bahrain, the
intervention of the Peninsula Shield force against a Shi’ite uprising derived
from Saudi determination to stop what it regarded as an Iranian attempt to use
restive Shi’ite populations to subvert Sunni monarchies in the Gulf area. The
Saudis were acutely aware that their own oil-rich, Shi’ite-populated eastern
province would be vulnerable to similar subversion if the Shi’ites proved
victorious in Bahrain.
Syria is the only Arab-state client of Iran. The
Alawite-dominated Assad regime forms a key node in the Iran-led “resistance
axis” that has formed, in recent years, the key challenge to the Western-led
regional alliance of which Saudi Arabia is a key component. The mood of unrest
that has swept the Middle East this year has threatened elements of both blocs.
Iran is currently firmly behind the Assad regime’s brutal fight for survival.
Indeed, Tehran has constituted the only factor standing between the Alawite
regime in Damascus and destruction. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are engaged
in providing equipment, advice and expertise to the embattled Syrian Ba’aths.
For intertwined powerpolitical and sectarian reasons, the Saudis have every
interest in preventing an Iranian victory.
The fact that Assad is still
in control in Syria and shows no signs of surrender is testimony in part to the
Iranian expertise at making war against restive civilian
Still, the regime has failed to quell the protests, which
are growing and spreading. Events in Syria are beginning to take on the contours
of an incipient civil war. There is a real possibility that Assad’s forces may
soon face armed resistance.
Against this background, with Assad fighting
for survival, Saudi Arabia evidently considered that the time was right to throw
its weight behind the largely Sunni attempt to bring down the
Other elements of the Arab mainstream also chose this week to
line up against Assad. Al-Azhar University, a central and venerated institution
of the Sunni Arab world, issued a statement condemning the violence in Syria and
calling for an end to this “Arab and Islamic tragedy.”
The Arab League,
too, managed to release a statement criticizing the violence.
latest developments confirm the sense that the perceived vulnerability of the
Assad regime is emboldening the Arab mainstream to turn against it. Damascus’s
alliance with the feared and hated Iranians is the key element here. But the
increasingly sectarian hue of events in Syria itself are compounding Assad’s
It is both easy and comfortable for Sunni regimes in Riyadh,
in Cairo and further afield to pose as the champions of a beleaguered Sunni
population against foreign oppressors and their local agents.
versus Iran power politics, riding on a much deeper current of sectarian
rivalry, is informing the latest Arab diplomatic moves on Syria.
of this matter? The answer is – probably not a great deal. Egyptian Foreign
Minister Nabil Elaraby has already cautioned against expecting any real
practical moves by the Arab League. Saudi Arabia is limited in its options. No
Arab shield, peninsular or otherwise, is going to be heading for Syria to
protect the people from the regime. The fight remains between a savage and
brutal regime, and a majority population that rejects its continued
Of course, the Saudis and the Iranians are not the only regional
players with a stake in Syria. In recent years, Turkey has deftly developed
relations with both the Assad regime and the Sunni opposition. The Turkish
position is hardening, and if events take a particular turn, a limited Turkish
incursion into Syria is possible.
Still, the moves by Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait and Bahrain this week show the extent to which the Arab Spring has failed
to alter the basic strategic contours of the Middle East. Rather, the response
of regional powers to internal instability in Arab states is being dictated by
strategic rivalries that preceded the unrest. These rivalries remain the key
dynamic driving the region. Both the Sunni Saudis and the Shi’ite Iranians back
or oppose unrest depending on whether their own power position stands to gain or
lose by it. The sharpest customers, like the Turks, back both regime and
opposition, and shift their support in accordance with unfolding events.