Syrian unrest is giving Saudi Arabia an opportunity to weaken rival Shiite Iran, which has been closely allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia is taking steps to force regime change in Syria, while seeking to thwart any Arab Spring contagion in Persian Gulf states. The Sunni monarchy, which tolerates little dissent at home, has joined with Qatar, another Gulf monarchy, in leading efforts to isolate Syria internationally.
Toppling the Assad regime would deny Iran its most important regional ally and allow Sunni Gulf nations to break Iran’s ‘Shiite crescent” of influence that extends through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and into the Palestinian territories, say analysts such as Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy group in Washington. Beyond fears that Iran aims to extend its regional influence, Persian Gulf countries also compete with the Persian nation for oil markets.
“Syria represents an irresistible opportunity to defang Iran,” said Jeff Laurenti, a United Nations analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research group. “Assad has been a thorn on the side of the Saudis.”
Even as Saudi Arabia rolled tanks across the border to snuff out a fledging uprising in the neighboring Sunni kingdom of Bahrain, the Saudis were outspoken in decrying human rights abuses in Syria.
The effort to weaken Assad “involves Saudi money and a Saudi diplomatic presence, but it doesn’t use Saudi territory and it's unlikely to have direct military effects,” according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.
The turmoil also has become a means for Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, to exercise its leadership ambitions in the Arab world. Turkey is driven by concerns of refugee flows, unrest on its doorstep and, on the part of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, a sense of personal betrayal.
Erdogan, whose family used to vacation with Assad’s, “feels that he was lied to by Bashar over promises that he’d end the violence and reform,” said Steven Heydemann of the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded, non-partisan policy group.
There has been speculation that the Turks and Saudis were competing for the loyalties of Syria’s Sunni population, Heydemann said. For now, he added, they have a mutual interest in avoiding rivalry while their goals on Syria are aligned.
This week at the UN, the Saudis submitted a draft resolution for the 193-member General Assembly in support of an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside, after Russia and China vetoed a similar Security Council resolution. No vetoes apply to non-binding resolutions in the General Assembly, where a vote may take place this week.
The Saudis, a predominantly Sunni society, have been at odds with Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution. While the majority of Syria’s population is Sunni, Assad’s family are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that predominates in Iran. With Iran, Syria backs the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, both considered terrorist groups by Israel and the U.S.
Displaying a break from his usual reserve, 87-year-old Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz took an indirect swipe at Russia and China for using their Security Council vetoes on Feb. 4. “No matter how powerful, countries cannot rule the whole world,” he said in a nationally televised address on Feb. 10. “The world is ruled by brains, by justice, by morals and by fairness.”
Behind closed doors, the king has been clear where he stands on Iran. He urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” in an April 2008 meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and U.S. General David Petraeus, according to a classified diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks in November 2010.
Failure by the UN’s decision-making body to deliver international condemnation of Assad’s deadly crackdown has left his neighbors and their Western allies with dwindling options on how to end a conflict that is descending into civil war. The Arab League has already suspended Syria and imposed economic sanctions on it.
Looking for fresh ways to intensify pressure on Assad, the 22-member league called for the formation of an Arab-UN peacekeeping force, a step unlikely to succeed as it requires approval from the Security Council where Russia has veto powers.
For the Qataris, who never had a close relationship with the Assads, the unrest has become “simply another opportunity to raise their profile regionally,” said Heydemann. Qatar took on a very prominent role in helping Libyan rebels overcome Muammar Qaddafi.
The Saudi activism on Syria is unusual and guided by a twin desire to contain the bloodshed and avoid a spillover into Lebanon and Jordan, as well as by its strategic interest to nudge Syria into the Sunni orbit, according to Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Saudis may be banking on the Muslim Brotherhood, which led an armed insurgency against Assad’s father three decades ago, according to Danin. The government’s increasing brutality is reminiscent of 1982 when Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion in the city of Hama, killing thousands.
“They look at Syria and they see all the ways it could go badly and they want to ensure it doesn’t,” Danin said in a telephone interview. “There was a period when the Arab world saw Assad as awful but better than the potential alternative. That is not the case anymore.”
Turkey faces the prospect of Syrian refugees flowing over its border. The Turks have to be careful not to alienate Syrians, the Iranians, with whom they have traditionally had a close trade relationship, and the Russians. And they are a non-Arab, predominately Muslim country pushing for a leadership role in the Arab world.