Syria and Lebanon: the main scene for Saudi-Iranian rivalry
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are characterized by religious-ideological antagonism and competition for regional influence. The current turmoil in the Middle East is often reflected in the hostility between the two states as their struggle over the character of the region has escalated and intensified. The potential negative implications of the Arab spring, along with the initial Iranian attempt to consolidate regional achievements, have largely roused Saudi Arabia out of its relative passivity in foreign policy and led it to attempt to promote a new inter-Arab alignment as a potential counterweight to Iran.
Saudi Arabia perceives Iran as a main threat for several reasons. The first relates to Iran’s desire to promote a security system in the Gulf free of foreign involvement—particularly that of America—in which Iran will assume a greater leadership role. The second refers to Iran’s view of itself as the more genuine representative of the Muslim world and as the state that is challenging Saudi Arabia’s role of dominance (alongside its Wahabi religious establishment) within the Muslim world, as a depiction of the Sunni–Shia rift. Iran’s pursuit of military nuclear capability and the potential impact this capability would have on shaping the regional agenda also threatens Saudi Arabia. Iran’s ambition and its military capabilities might be used, in a Saudi perspective, to further Iranian influence over OPEC and over the Shiites minority population in the Saudi kingdom.
The Sunni-Shiite conflict plays a critical role in relations between the two opposing sides of the Gulf in general and between Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular. Saudi Arabia has committed intense efforts to draw pro-Iranian Middle East players into the Saudi-Sunni camp and to establish a multi-national front, based upon sectarian divisions, against Iran’s regional ambitions.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Syria, Iran’s main ally have deteriorated due to the violent suppression of the protests in Syria, which began in March 2011. Even prior to this, Saudi Arabia failed in its attempt to rescue Syria from the clutches of Iranian influence and create a united anti-Iranian bloc composed of Sunni states. The protests in Syria gave the kingdom a new opportunity to promote its agenda. By weakening the Assad regime, the Saudis hope they will help reduce the power of the “Shiite axis”. In this vein, the Saudi media has regularly criticized Iran’s less-than covert attempts at supporting the Syrian regime.
Saudi Arabia’s current policy constitutes a change in its attitude toward the Assad regime. After the rift between the two states in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005, King Abdullah led a policy of relative openness toward Syria in an attempt to drive a wedge between it and Iran. As unrest in Syria grew, however, he recalled his ambassador back to Riyadh in August 2011. This, along with its support to quell Shiite insurgency in Bahrain, is evidence that Saudi Arabia intends to stand up to the radical front headed by Iran. Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar, has also taken action in order to further weaken the Iranian-Syrian axis. The two nations, for example, worked together to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League and continue to provide financial and military support to different elements within the Syrian opposition. These measures fit with the approach Saudi Arabia has adopted since the beginning of the Arab spring, which is both more assertive than in the past, and expresses its attempt to reshape the map of alliances in the region in accordance with its interests.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia have preferred to avoid confrontation, focusing on attempts at mediation in the Arab world for the purpose of eliminating dangers while attempting to avoid being aligned with any side. In the case of Syria, the kingdom has preferred American leadership. When this did not materialize, however, Saudi Arabia, with its large coffers and affluent Sunni Islamic influence, entered the resulting vacuum. As noted its previous attempts at distancing Assad from the Iranian axis were unsuccessful, but the rebellion against Assad gave the Saudis an unusual opportunity to weaken Iranian influence in the area.
The Arab world began to adopt a tougher stance vis-a-vis Assad in the summer of 2011, when the Gulf Cooperation Council called on Syria to stop its “deadly suppression of citizens,” followed by an unusually sharp statement by Saudi King Abdullah, who demanded that Syria “stop the killing machine”. This new tone resulted from the King’s frustration with the Alawite minority regime (which he considers heretical) regarding Saudi attempts at mediation, combined with the realization that Syrian opposition achievements are likely to tip the balance against Iran. The King’s anger increased following the killing of members of cross-border tribes that were the tribal lineage of his mother and two of his sisters, and the widespread killing of Sunnis during the holy month of Ramadan.
Since then, Saudi Arabia, with some coordination with Qatar (which has since cut back on its involvement) and the United Arab Emirates, has been aiding rebel forces that it regards as suitable for the Anti-Iranian cause in Lebanon and the Syrian opposition sometimes without taking into account American restrictions on armaments. The strategic goal of overthrowing Assad (and weakening Iran and Hizbollah) currently spearheads Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Its aim is to strengthen elements among the rebels, so that if and when Assad falls, those elements will gain control over what remains of the Syrian state.
The Arab Gulf countries tried to persuade the United States that the Assad regime had crossed the red line announced by President Obama in August 2012 and again in March 2013 concerning the use of chemical weapons. According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabian intelligence found proof that this weapon was used already in February 2013, and presented this evidence to the United States. However, American disinclination to get involved in Syria has caused the Gulf States to doubt the credibility of the US, their main “defense provider,” to deliver. A manifestation, in their eyes, of America’s diminishing regional influence. It was reported that the Saudi king, frustrated with American policy in the region, sent Obama a message saying “America’s credibility was on the line if it let Assad prevail”. Elements within the Gulf States, notably in Kuwait and the UAE, started privately financing different Sunni rebel groups – causing further radicalization and fragmentation within the rebel ranks in a rampant competition for funds and influence.
The Saudis are reportedly providing 3 billion dollars as an aid package to the Lebanese armed forces, as a part of their effort to support Pro–Sunni factions in Lebanon. These efforts are backed, according to Hizbollah members, by an unprecedented intelligence campaign, led by the Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan – to cripple the Shia organization’s infrastructure, target its assets and weaken Hizbollah’s political position within the Lebanese political arena. This may very well be a Saudi attempt to force Hizbollah to allocate more forces back to Lebanon and away from Syria, while delegitimizing it on the home front as a destabilizing and a sectarian force.
There are no Saudi illusions about a sweeping victory in Syria and Lebanon. They too are aware of advantage in weaponry, organization, and external support enjoyed by Assad and his allies. They hope, however, that the support they provide will tip the scales in their favor, bleeding their adversaries financially and militarily, as an historical payback for supporting Shiite subversion over the years in Iraq, the gulf and in the Saudi kingdom. Their enemies – the Assad regime, Iran, and Hizbollah – have been weakened on a daily basis, and are suffering economically, with thus far at little to no significant cost to the kingdom.
Concern based on past experience, however, indicates that ramifications of radical elements operating in Syria and Lebanon are liable to boomerang back to the Gulf and upset stability between Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq, Kuwait and the Saudi Kingdom itself.Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are joined by tensions between parties favoring stability and anti–Iranian hardliners within different regimes in the gulf. Along, with many in the Arab countries, the hardliners believe that the overthrow of the Assad regime could restrain Iran and “restore Iran to its natural size,” hopefully without leading to a frontal confrontation between Iran and the Saudis. This confrontation has been avoided until now.
Those in the Sunni side vying for stability in contrast are alarmed at the possibility that by funding fighters abroad, they might be fueling extremists and Sunni radicals, such as Al Qaeda. With these seasoned veterans bound to return to their Sunni homelands eventually, those concerns might be realized in the form of subsequent radicalization and implementation of terrorist tactics from abroad in the Saudi kingdom and across the gulf.
The Saudis have at times acted as a revolutionary force and at times as a counter-revolutionary force, depending on their interests. They engineered the deal on the removal of Yemen’s President Saleh from office, were involved in consolidating the new regime in Tunisia, and helped to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. On the other hand, they used force to maintain the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain and sought to keep Mubarak’s regime in power in Egypt. When this effort was unsuccessful, they gave billions in aid to the military regime in Egypt, which recently regained power. Saudi efforts in Lebanon and Syria to assist Anti–Iranian parties are consistent with these trends. With the Saudis testing Iranian resolve to the limit, despite the kingdom’s inferior demographic and geopolitical position and Iran and its allies, cornered by a vast Sunni majority yet more than eager to fight, it is unclear how and when this bloody deadlock will be resolved.