RIYADH - Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, Prince
Muqrin, once told American diplomats the Middle East's so-called Shi'ite
Crescent where the Muslim sect holds sway was "becoming a full moon" as Iranian
For the kingdom's Sunni ruling princes, that fear,
revealed in a 2009 US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, now focuses on
Syria. Iran-backed President Bashar Assad's forces are advancing with the aid
of Lebanese Hezbollah Shi'ite fighters, while Riyadh supports the Sunni rebels
fighting against him.
It is a war increasingly seen in Riyadh as the
fulcrum of a wider geopolitical struggle with Iran, a country it believes is
radical, expansionist and militant, and a potential threat to Saudi Arabia
"If the Syrian government wins, it will prove to other Arab
countries that Iran is able to protect its allies in the region. This will
undermine Western alliances and Western allies," said Abdulaziz al-Sager, head
of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah.
Since the fall of Syrian rebel
stronghold Qusair this month, there has been growing unease in Saudi Arabia's
dusty capital Riyadh about the opposition's chances.
Riyadh has been
backing the mainly Sunni rebels with arms, money and political support, while
Western countries, above all the United States, have given mixed signals,
calling for Assad's downfall but refusing so far to send arms or use
The Western position changed dramatically last week when US President Barack Obama signaled that Washington would arm the rebels. But he
has not yet explained how or when that might begin, and Saudis are still
sceptical of Western support.
Two months ago, Saudi Arabia expanded its
own weapons supply to include anti-aircraft missiles, a Gulf source said, adding
that the world's top oil exporter had started taking a more active role in the
While more Saudi-supplied weaponry is likely headed to the
Syrian opposition, there is a growing view among senior Saudis that it is no
longer enough to just give the rebels arms and advice, diplomats in the Gulf
Instead, the four men running Saudi Arabia's Syria policy - King
Abdullah and three of his nephews - Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal,
intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and National Security Council deputy
chief Prince Salman bin Sultan - want more US involvement, said the
"They've been saying for a while the international community is
not doing enough in Syria but they thought the opposition could manage. They are
really worried about the attitude in Washington," said one diplomatic source in
the Gulf.STEEL CLAWS
So worrying is the situation, as seen in Riyadh,
that King Abdullah cut short his summer leave in Morocco to fly home on Friday,
warning of the "repercussions of events in the region". The suggestion of
concern prompted a sharp drop in Saudi stocks.
Underpinning Saudi worries
is the participation in Syria of Shi'ite militia from neighboring countries,
particularly Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraq's Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade, which
Prince Turki al-Faisal, another former Saudi spy chief, this week described in
an interview as Iran's "steel claws".
Influential Saudi commentator Jamal
Khashoggi, in an article for newspaper al-Hayat, painted what for Saudis is a
frightening picture of the Gulf after an Assad victory. Iran would threaten
Saudi security and angry Sunni youth would respond by turning to al Qaeda, the
militant network that is as hostile to Shi'ites as it is to the West.
nightmare, don't you think?" he wrote.
Since Hezbollah started to trumpet
its involvement in Syria, Sunni clerics, including some from Saudi Arabia, have
used increasingly sectarian rhetoric in their attacks on Assad.
Saudi Arabia's official Wahhabi school of Islam sees Shi'ites as heretical, the
kingdom's rulers also see sectarian language as potentially dangerous, said one
diplomatic source in the Gulf.
They believe openly sectarian rhetoric can
backfire by helping mobilise Shi'ites in support of Assad as much as it fires up
the rebellion. Worse still, it alienates potential backers in the West and draws
Sunni militants to the conflict that can later pose a threat to
Throughout the rebellion, Saudi Arabia has feared a repeat of
previous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan when large numbers of Saudis joined
what they saw as a jihad only to return to the kingdom and take up arms against
Saudi officials have repeatedly warned that citizens who
go to fight face prison upon their return, and have tried to funnel charitable
donations for Syria through state channels to avoid cash going to militant
While some Saudis, including Khashoggi, are calling
for the kingdom to take tougher independent action against Assad, diplomats in
the Gulf say its role is constrained by its limited capacity for sustained
Although the Saudi airforce is well equipped, it
performed poorly in a brief border war with a Yemeni rebel group in 2010, US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks said at the time.
And, while Saudi
forces engaged Iraq's army in the 1991 Gulf War, they fought only on Saudi soil.
Striking an Arab, Muslim country is problematic for the birthplace of Islam,
which aims to be perceived as neutral custodian of Islam's holy
With limits on what it can do itself, it needs Washington to help
fight its battles.
"Russia remains committed. Iran remains committed. The
Western allies are not committed to the degree and level you would like to see.
That raises an important issue. In this way Assad can win," said
The desire to push Washington to take a bigger role contributed to
a recent flurry of diplomatic activity, as Prince Saud and Prince Bandar
travelled to Paris for top-level meetings.
However Riyadh is well aware
of the difficulty of persuading Obama to be tougher while Syrian rebels remain
fractured and their strongest units are so ideologically militant. That means
playing down the struggle's sectarian side.
"You need to reduce the
political risk to Obama, and that means repositioning the opposition as
humanitarian, rather than Islamist. It's difficult," said a diplomatic source.
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