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The latest sign that the US is losing Saudi Arabia over Syria

But is that a problem?

By Staff writer / December 17, 2013

A Danish frigate intended to escort chemical weapons out of Syria. Those weapons may go, but the war and its deadly toll will go on.

Pavlos Vrionides

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Saudi Arabia hasn't been shy about pressuring the US into direct involvement in the Syrian civil war on the rebels' side. The latest prominent Saudi to throw his hat into the ring is Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the ruling family and the ambassador to Britain. 

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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In an Op-Ed in The New York Times today, Prince Nawaf tied Syria policy with his own country's longstanding rivalry with Iran in the region, writing that "we believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East."

Under President Bashar al-Assad, Syria is one of only two Arab countries friendly to Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to see Mr. Assad's government toppled, to be replaced by a Sunni-dominated regime. That would to some extent rebalance the effects of the US-led war in Iraq, which toppled the Sunni Arab-dominated there that was hostile to Iran and led to its replacement by a Shiite government far friendlier to the Islamic republic along its eastern border.

Nawaf writes:

While international efforts have been taken to remove the weapons of mass destruction used by the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, surely the West must see that the regime itself remains the greatest weapon of mass destruction of all? Chemical weapons are but a small cog in Mr. Assad’s killing machine. While he may appear to be going along with every international initiative to end the conflict, his regime will continue to do everything in its power to frustrate any serious solution.

The Assad regime is bolstered by the presence of Iranian forces in Syria. These soldiers did not enter Syria to protect it from a hostile external occupation; they are there to support an evil regime that is hurting and harming the Syrian people. It is a familiar pattern for Iran, which has financed and trained militias in Iraq, Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and militants in Yemen and Bahrain.

And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

His comments need to be read with skepticism. While it's true that Syrian government forces have carried out war crimes in Syria, so have rebel units – particularly Islamist formations that, with informal flows of weapons and money from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, now dominate the forces opposed to Assad. Part of what has stayed the Obama administrations hand is fear of becoming a direct participant in a sectarian conflict that could become much uglier if the Syrian state collapsed.

The backbone of the Assad regime has been the Alawite minority – a long-ago offshoot of Shiite Islam – that he hails from. The country also has significant Shiite and Christian minorities, many of whom are afraid of what would happen to them in the aftermath of a rebel victory. Quite simply, while Assad may be running a killing machine, his men are far from the only killers in the conflict.

With the open participation of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party and militia backed by Iran, the conflict is shaping up to be a proxy war between Iranian and Saudi interests. That the House of Saud would like the US and other powers to intervene on its side in the conflict is as clear as the desire for Iran or Hezbollah for the US not to do so. None of the intentions of these outsiders is as pure as the undriven snow in this conflict.

As for Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the interim agreement struck between Iran and world powers to halt enrichment for six months while a permanent agreement is crafted may indeed fail. But the prospects of success make clear that a deal is in US interests. Getting what you want at the negotiating table is, after all, far cheaper and better for the lives and limbs of all concerned than war.

But Saudi Arabia's interests – and those of Israel, which is also opposed to efforts to forge a deal with Iran – are not really aligned with the United States' interests in this case. The Saudis don't want to see Iran, with its vast oil reserves, large economy, and substantial conventional military forces, strengthened by an end to sanctions, nukes or no nukes.

Is Nawaf right that "Al Qaeda’s activities (in Syria) are a symptom of the international community’s failure to intervene?" Well, the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq was a result of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been in large part thanks to Al Qaeda's already established presence just over the border. ISIS is the latest iteration of Al Qaeda in Iraq – a group that received substantial support from Saudi citizens during the US occupation of Iraq, and after.

That isn't to say direct US-led intervention sooner would have definitely made things worse on that front – but this bald assertion is made over and over by advocates of intervention (often with their own ultimate objectives unstated) without any consideration of recent history.

Nawaf asserts that "the policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region" and that as a consequence "this means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs... nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab World."

As a statement that Saudi Arabia will pursue its interests in the region as it sees them, this can be taken at his word. When democracy protests in Shiite majority Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni monarchy, broke out in 2011, Saudi Arabia acted in favor of stability, sending troops to participate in a bloody crackdown against the protesters. Amnesty International alleged in a report this week that Bahrain is routinely detaining and torturing involved with anti-government protests.

Don't expect Saudi Arabia to speak out against this. Its interests are aligned with Bahrain.

The country is also looking to stability at home. This week the Saudi cabinet approved a draft law that criminalizes acts deemed to "disturb public order, defame the reputation of the state or threaten the kingdom’s unity," the Associated Press reports.

None of this should lead to us overlooking the daily horrors in Syria, or the millions of people displaced and huddling for shelter in makeshift camps during an unusually cold and snowy winter across the Levant.

But it's worth considering that the Saudi military support the country continues to promise to rebels can prolong the war as much as, if not more easily, than it can end it. In this matter, as in so many, national interest is the overriding concern, no matter how nicely it's dressed up as humanitarian concern.

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