While it is a favorite pastime for many Lebanon and Syria watchers to speculate on the magical benefits of a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, the current upheavals in the Middle East have once again thrown into stark relief the fact that Riyadh and Damascus are ensconced in rival camps, led by the US and Iran respectively, competing over the future of the region and the shape of its strategic alignment. This has been evident in Saudi-Syrian media tensions over the crises in Bahrain and Libya.
Syria’s interests in Bahrain and Libya are diametrically opposed to those of Saudi Arabia. As has been the case historically, inter-Arab rivalries play themselves out in the media. For Arab regimes, information warfare is an integral instrument in their arsenals, alongside hard operational tools.
The opening salvo came when Bahrain officially complained that Syrian television had aired false reports of a Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy against the Shia opposition. This official Bahraini complaint was also carried by the more visible Saudi press.
Interestingly, a report in Al-Sharq al-Awsat also mentioned other similar claims made by Iranian satellite stations, which were subsequently carried by websites close to the Bahraini opposition. In other words, the Syrian report went hand-in-hand with an Iranian information operation aimed at the Saudis.
The Iranians and the Syrians are fully aware of the value of the turmoil in Bahrain and Yemen in bringing pressure on Saudi Arabia, especially as popular stirrings have begun in the kingdom’s eastern province, which contains a concentration of Saudi’s Shia population.
One would be right to point out that the Shia opposition in Bahrain, and its demand for reform, has little or nothing to do with Iran. Nevertheless, Iran’s game is also one of framing narratives and controlling perceptions. In so doing, it aims to stamp its brand on the events in the region in order to further its strategic objectives, even when the drivers of these events are independent of Teheran.
However, beyond propaganda, it does seem that the US is concerned about actual operational involvement by Iran in Bahrain. At a recent hearing at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the Iranians were “doing everything they can to influence the outcomes” in places like Bahrain. Importantly, she added, “We know that they are reaching out to the opposition in Bahrain. We know that the Iranians are very much involved in the opposition movements in Yemen.”
This public acknowledgment is a year late. The busting of Iranian cells operating in Kuwait and Bahrain was reported in May of last year. Syria too has played an auxiliary role to Iran in its efforts to destabilize Manama. On the eve of the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the Bahraini authorities announced the arrest of a group of Shia militants who had received training in Syria, accusing them of planning terrorist attacks during Bahrain’s national day celebrations.
Syria’s role in Libya is more direct, and here too, Saudi media has been involved in exposing Damascus’ involvement. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that Libyan rebels had downed two fighter planes piloted by Syrians. It also quoted a statement by a Libyan group charging that Syria had dispatched a number of its pilots and Special Forces to assist the Qaddafi regime in defeating the rebels.
Moreover, the report quoted Libyan sources raising questions about the recent trip to Syria by Gaddafi’s cousin, which may have played a role in the Libyan regime’s request for military assistance from Damascus – a longtime ally. In fact, so close has Syrian-Libyan cooperation been over the years, that one Syrian site claimed that Syrian security agents were in Libya to ensure sensitive intelligence files detailing this cooperation, such as in the Lockerbie bombing case, don’t fall in the wrong hands.
In addition, Al-Sharq al-Awsat’s editor, Tariq Homayed, penned a column on Tuesday criticizing Syria’s role in targeting Saudi Arabia. Homayed charged that a piece in The Independent, which claimed that the US had tasked Saudi Arabia with arming the Libyan rebels, was fed to the British paper by “some of Iran’s allies” – meaning the Syrians. Homayed concluded that this was an attempt to jab at the Saudis and “to embroil them in the Libyan storm,” ironically wondering why nobody would volunteer to reveal the content of Qaddafi’s recent phone call to “a certain Arab president,” in reference to Bashar al-Assad.
What is evident is that this information warfare accompanies and supports a broader regional cold war, which is being fought on several proxy battlefields and involves multiple players.
In recent years, it became fashionable again to talk about a supposed “Arab fold” into which Syria ostensibly should be “brought back.” The reality of Arab power politics, however, has always been one of competing blocs aligned with rival external powers. What lies behind the Saudi-Syrian media recriminations is the fact that, all the chatter about rapprochement notwithstanding, the two Arab states continue to fall firmly on opposing sides of the region’s fundamental strategic fault line: the Iranian alliance system on the one hand, and the US-backed order on the other.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published at NOW Lebanon.