US missile strike reverberates on Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry

Surprise move could help facilitate holding of a regional peace conference this summer.

US warships fire 59 missiles on Syrian airfield (Reuters)
The US missile attack on a Syrian airbase last week gives a boost to US ally Saudi Arabia and moderate Sunni regimes in their struggle for regional primacy with Iran, a close ally of the Russian- backed Assad regime, which has now suffered a setback.
A jubilant Riyadh on Friday wasted no time in voicing its “full support” for the strike, praising US President Donald Trump’s “courageous decision” to undertake it and saying the Assad regime bears responsibility for eliciting the US action with a sarin gas attack Tuesday, according to a statement by the SPA state news agency cited by Reuters.
Iran, in contrast, said it “strongly condemns any such unilateral strikes,” the Students News Agency ISNA quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying. “Such measures will strengthen terrorists in Syria and will complicate the situation in Syria and the region,” the spokesman said. The comments came after two US warships fired dozens of cruise missiles from the eastern Mediterranean at a Syrian Air Force base in response to the poison gas attack in a rebel- held area.
For Riyadh, a supporter of rebels fighting the Assad regime in the six-year-old civil war, the American action brings to an end years of frustration at the absence of forceful US intervention against the Assad regime. This absence of US potency was most evident when the Obama administration failed to respond militarily after the Assad regime used chemical weapons in 2013, even though the president Barack Obama had warned this was a “redline” and would not be tolerated.
The Saudis hope the strike marks a reversal of US policy of watching largely from the sidelines as Moscow, with an active role by Iran, turned the tide against the rebels through massive military backing of Assad and aerial bombardments beginning in 2015. This was a blow to Saudi interests and prestige and raised questions in Riyadh as to whether Washington could be counted on in its struggle for regional primacy with Iran.
Now the US has finally wielded the stick of military force in Syria and thereby taken a major step toward reestablishing its regional credibility, foremost with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.
“The regional allies of the US – Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Egypt – are elated with the fact the US has shown resolve and determination,” said Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at the University of Haifa. “For the first time in many years, the US has shown itself worthy of being trusted by its friends and feared by its enemies.
“Iran and Hezbollah are on Russia’s side condemning this, because they are fearful that they could be next,” Ben-Dor added. “They are worried the US might take military action against them as well on occasion, or at least that the US will be determined to defeat their forces fighting in Syria.”
In Ben-Dor’s view, “the Assad regime is not the real issue here.
The real issue is much bigger: What will the US do? Will it back Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and others against radical Shi’ites led by Iran? Syria is merely a test case for a much bigger confrontation looming.”
The message of the strike, Ben-Dor said, is that the US will back the Saudis and its other allies against Iran.
Joshua Teitelbaum, a Saudi specialist at Bar-Ilan University, added: “The Saudis are definitely delighted. They finally see the US breaking out of its past lethargy. This signals to the Gulf countries that the US is back in the game.”
Still, Teitelbaum cautions against overestimating the impact on Riyadh of one single action. “It was a fairly limited strike on an empty airfield where everyone was warned in advance. It looks to the Saudis like things are going in the right direction, but they will still wait and see.”
The airstrike could facilitate US efforts to organize a regional peace conference in the summer attended by Israel, the Palestinians and the Gulf states.
Fledgling attempts toward that end were first reported last week in The Jerusalem Post. “Because this gives the US many points with the moderate Arab Sunnis, the US will have more clout trying to prod them into a political process with Israel,” said Ben-Dor.
“This will give the process of trying to hold a regional peace conference more momentum,” he continued. “They feel indebted to Washington and have more trust in the ability of Washington to lead a process and make it stick.”