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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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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.

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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:


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