Arab World: Power politics

Sectarianism plays out in Syria as Saudis seize momentum to continue battle for regional dominance and bring down Damascus regime.

anti-Assad protest in Deir al-Zor 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
“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 “consultations.”
Syrian troops near Turkish border, refugees flee
Analysis: Saudi switch against Assad is blow to Iran
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.
In Syria, 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 populations.
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 regime.
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.
These 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 isolation.
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.
So Saudi versus Iran power politics, riding on a much deeper current of sectarian rivalry, is informing the latest Arab diplomatic moves on Syria.
Will any 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 rule.
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.