This past Sunday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem offered his government’s first official statement on the situation in Bahrain, in which he described the intervention by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces as legal, and not an occupation. Many have rushed to the conclusion that this statement signals a break between Syria and Iran over Bahrain, as Tehran has come out strongly against the intervention. This reading, however, misses the mark entirely and fails to understand the context of Mouallem’s words.
The crisis in Bahrain has become a de facto proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For Iran, Bahrain is a strategic target, both in operational as well as propaganda terms. For one, the prospect of the downfall of yet another pro-American Arab ruler offers Iran a valuable addition to its narrative of a declining American order in the region, in contrast with the inevitable rise of Iran and its allies.
Already, Iranian propagandists are gloating about what the potential fallout in Manama would supposedly mean for Iran, from limiting the activity of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet to causing the GCC states to defer further to Iran.
Beyond propaganda, however, the Saudis recognize that Iran has the two main Arab allies of the US – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – in its sights. Already the Iranians are aggressively seeking to shape post-Mubarak Egypt’s orientation through the Gaza flashpoint. Similarly, the ultimate target beyond Bahrain is Saudi Arabia itself.
Hence, the Saudis see an attempt by Iran to pressure the Kingdom, especially its eastern province, by manipulating the crisis in Bahrain, just as it had done in Yemen. The Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain was, therefore, Riyadh’s way of cutting off the road for Tehran, which decried and condemned the move.
According to one report in the Lebanese daily al-Jumhuriya, Saudi Arabia dispatched a message to the Iranians with Mouallem, who headed to Tehran for an official visit last week, warning Iran on three counts: First, that the Kingdom views Bahrain as a red line, as it directly affects Saudi national security. Second, Saudi Arabia rejects any attempt to set up another Hezbollah in Bahrain. And third, Riyadh does not wish to see a response by Hezbollah in Lebanon to the developments in Bahrain.
But did Mouallem actually break with Iran during his visit? Hardly. After his meeting with his Iranian counterpart, a joint statement was issued tackling the situation in Bahrain. A close reading of that statement, and of the Syrian foreign minister’s other comments in Tehran, puts the lie to the notion that Syria has split with Iran over Bahrain.
The joint statement, in fact, was entirely tailored to fit Iran’s interests, hitting all the points that served Tehran’s purposes, painting it as an interlocutor over Bahrain and presenting it as being directly concerned with Bahrain’s “security and stability” as well as its “sovereignty and independence,” in a direct jab at the Saudi intervention. Then, aside from emphasizing Syria’s strategic relationship with Iran, Mouallem lauded the Islamic Republic’s “great role in aiding the peoples of the region” and, puffing up his own country’s importance, asserted that regional stability was based on “cooperation between Tehran and Damascus.”
A couple of days later, and in an exceedingly transparent move, Mouallem gave his exclusive interview to the Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in which he declared that the GCC move was not an illegal occupation. Mouallem also tried to spin the relaying of a Saudi message as somehow constituting a Syrian mediatory role with Iran – an old Syrian sales pitch that no longer has any value. In fact, the only reason Riyadh chose to communicate indirectly with Tehran was because it did not wish to grant the Iranians the acknowledgment that they were legitimate interlocutors over Bahraini affairs. There was no meaningful Syrian “role” here at all.
Moreover, Mouallem’s obvious acrobatics highlight the fact that Syria’s had very little margin for maneuver. Having already signed off on a statement de facto favoring Iran’s position, the Syrians could hardly come out explicitly on their own against the GCC intervention.
For one, their Qatari friends were partaking in the GCC force. Second, the Syrians have an interest in accepting the rationale for intervention in a strategic backyard under the cover of security treaties, as that has been the Syrian public rationale for their own military intervention in Lebanon. After all, their 29-year “presence” in Lebanon was always justified as having been “at the invitation of the Lebanese government.” Third, in a possibly menacing Saudi reminder, a recent column by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat’s editor noted that, as the Assad regime itself was a minority regime ruling over a Sunni majority, it had no credibility to opine on the state of affairs in Bahrain.
In the end, Mouallem’s comment is essentially meaningless rhetoric that doesn’t have any real impact on either Riyadh or Tehran. And given how the reported Saudi demand that Hezbollah not interject itself into the Bahrain debate was thoroughly ignored by the party’s secretary general, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Syria to maintain even the pretense of relevance, let alone the ability to chart an independent course from Tehran – not just in Bahrain, but even in Lebanon.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.