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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.