Opinion

How Saudi Arabia can contain Iran – and other benefits from Syria's turmoil

Saudi Arabia is facing its biggest foreign policy obstacle (and opportunity) yet – one whose outcome matters deeply to the US. How the kingdom handles Syrian turmoil will determine its leadership standing in the region and its containment of Iran.

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All of a sudden, Saudi Arabia finds itself facing a historic opportunity to greatly enhance its strategic position in the Middle East and perhaps even assume an undisputed leadership role in Arab politics.

And this is hardly just an internal Saudi matter.

The regional status of the kingdom is a matter of some importance to the United States and its policies in the Middle East. Given the (still solid) strategic alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, it goes without saying that a more influential and assertive Riyadh helps Washington achieve its overall foreign policy goals in the region, most urgent of which is checking Iran’s power and preventing it from becoming a nuclear power state.

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So what is this new Saudi opportunity all about? It starts in Syria

Earlier this month, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued a strongly worded statement against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for his brutal crackdown against Syrian protestors, asking him to stop the “killing machine and end the bloodshed.” He also pulled his ambassador to Syria out of Damascus.

Mr. Abdullah’s statement is worth paying close attention to because it reflects not only the kingdom’s foreign policy shift toward relations with Syria but also its new regional approach toward this period of uncertainty and upheaval that has been rocking the Middle East.

Saudi priority No. 1: Contain Iran

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Saudi Arabia has focused all its efforts on fulfilling a single task in foreign policy: the containment of Tehran’s power and influence in the region. Saudi Arabia’s rulers saw (and continue to see) the world, almost exclusively, from the prism of the “Shiite octopus.” Always reacting to Iranian moves, Saudi Arabia seemed behind, trying to limit Iranian advances and minimize costs as much as possible.

Containing Iran was never easy because Tehran had done a masterful job projecting its power onto the Levant and Arab Gulf where the kingdom had vital political and security interests. After the 2003 Iraq War, containing Iran became much more difficult because the elimination of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of the Iranians, offered Tehran a huge opportunity to dominate the politics and security of oil-rich Iraq. Iran’s rise after the fall of Baghdad prompted leaders in the region, including King Abdullah II of Jordan, to speak of a “Shiite Crescent.”

The Saudis looked at their relations with Syria as a means to slow down, or perhaps more realistically, manage Iran’s rise and growing influence. They needed someone that could carry their messages and concerns to the Iranians. Yes, Syria had harassed and often eliminated the kingdom’s allies in Lebanon, and yes, it had armed and offered political backing to pro-Iranian Hezbollah, but the thinking inside the kingdom was that this was no time for payback. Indeed, the House of Saud calculated that a rupture in relations between them and the Syrians would most likely turn the job of containing Iran from difficult to impossible.

Therefore, the decision was to turn a blind eye (at least temporarily) to Syrian mischief in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq – even if it came at the cost of important Saudi interests – on the condition that the Syrians show good faith and gradually distance themselves from Iran. While Abdullah never expected Mr. Assad to break completely with Iran, he wanted to see the Syrian leader cooperate on sensitive matters and give more priority to Arab affairs.

Yet what Riyadh had not realized (until now) was that the very network of relations it enjoyed in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq that was being constantly undermined by Syria was in fact the very tool that was necessary to successfully implement the Iran-containment policy.

Here’s one example. When Saudi Arabia sought several understandings with Syria on Lebanon during the 2009 to 2010 period, it was, in effect, hurting its chances of containing Iran because these deals ended up bolstering the strength of Iranian-backed Hezbollah. At the same time, these deals ended up weakening Saudi Arabia’s allies in Lebanon, including Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, son of Rafik whom Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran are suspected of killing in February 2005.

No longer turning a blind in Syria

But turning a blind eye to Syria’s mischief and connection to Iran is now all over.

Abdullah’s recent statement suggests that Saudi Arabia is no longer viewing its relations with Syria in the same light. The House of Saud has finally decided instead to take advantage of the vulnerability of the Syrian regime and grab the great opportunities presented by the crisis it is facing:

First, with Assad potentially gone (or with his role transformed), Saudi Arabia could find a “natural” ally in a new, Sunni-dominated government in Damascus, and consequently extend its influence in the Levant. Equally, if not more, important, with a new Syrian political order that is friendly to the Saudis, Iran will lose a gigantic gateway to the Arab world and therefore find it much harder to fulfill its goals in the Middle East. This will allow the kingdom’s Lebanese allies to breathe again.

Second, Saudi Arabia could assume an undisputed leadership role in the Arab world and the region, now that Syria is facing an existential crisis, Egypt is in what could be a lengthy transitional stage in its politics, and Iraq's politics are dangerously paralyzing and unstable.

The balancing act ahead

But the kingdom knows very well that if the Syrian regime falls, there will be inherent risks during the transition, all of which will require prudent but also forward-looking Saudi statesmanship and crisis management. On the security front, things could (but not necessarily) turn ugly if Assad goes, with sectarian fighting inside Syria spilling over to Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East.

At home, the Saudi leadership cannot pressure the Syrian regime too much because it knows that it is in an awkward, hypocritical position (the kingdom is second to none when it comes to denial of political rights and freedoms, especially to women, in the Middle East). Its vocal opposition could awaken a so-far relatively dormant Saudi population, especially its Shiite part in the Eastern province.

Because of the risks and uncertainties of the Syrian crisis, Saudi Arabia is aware that it has to engage in a very delicate balancing act. Too much pressure could backfire. Too little could see the opportunity for greater regional leadership and containment of Iranian influence slip away. In its place, Turkey could step in as a major power broker and manage Syria’s political future.

The current upheaval in Syria and shifting sands in the greater Middle East is one of the most challenging foreign policy tasks that Saudi Arabia has had to deal with since its creation in 1932 – and it’s one whose completion is of great concern to the US as well. If it succeeds in setting itself up for leadership in Syria, the kingdom could become a revived, major player on the regional scene, and Washington could rejoice for finally having an ally that is capable of confronting Iran. If Saudi Arabia fails in this balancing act, it risks becoming far less relevant and falling well behind nations such as up-and-coming Egypt and rising Turkey. And then Tehran would rejoice.

Bilal Y. Saab is a visiting fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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