Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Uprising Explained

Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Uprising Explained

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It's difficult to think of a more unlikely champion of democratic change in Syria than Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the Arab world's most conservative societies, where power resides in the narrow circle of octogenarian elders of the royal family backed by a powerful hierarchy of Wahhabi Muslim clergy. At home and abroad, Saudis cherish stability over all. So what is the link between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian uprising?

Saudi Foreign Policy: Breaking Syria's Alliance with Iran

Saudi support for the Syrian opposition is motivated by a decades-long desire to break the alliance between Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia's chief rival for dominance in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East.

Saudi reaction to the Arab Spring has been two-fold: containing the unrest before it reaches Saudi territory, and ensuring that Iran does not benefit from any changes to the regional balance of power.

In this context, the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in Spring 2011 came as a golden opportunity for the Saudis to strike at Iran's key Arab ally. While Saudi Arabia lacks the military capacity to intervene directly, it will use its oil wealth to arm Syrian rebels and, in the event that Assad falls, ensure his regime is replaced by a friendly government.

Growing Saudi-Syrian Tension

Traditionally cordial relations between Damascus and Riyadh began to unravel rapidly under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, particularly after the 2003 US-led intervention in Iraq. The coming to power of a Shiite government in Baghdad with close links to Iran unnerved the Saudis. Faced with Iran's growing regional clout, Saudi Arabia found it increasingly difficult to accommodate the interests of Tehran's chief Arab ally in Damascus.

Two major flashpoints have drawn Assad into an inevitable clash with the oil-rich kingdom:

  • Lebanon: Syria is the main conduit for the flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, a Shiite political party that commands the most powerful militia in Lebanon. To contain Iranian influence in the country, Saudis have backed those Lebanese groups opposed to Hezbollah, particularly the Sunni Hariri family. The fall or substantial weakening of the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus would curtail Hezbollah's access to weapons and greatly bolster Saudi allies in Lebanon.
  • Palestine: Syria has traditionally supported radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas who reject dialogue with Israel, while Saudi Arabia backs the rival Fatah of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who advocates peace talks. Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2008 and lack of progress in Fatah-Israeli negotiations have caused much embarrassment to Saudi diplomats. Weaning Hamas off its sponsors in Syria and Iran would be another major coup for Saudi foreign policy.

What Role for Saudi Arabia in Syria?

Other than wresting Syria away from Iran, the Saudis don't seem to hold any particular interest in fostering a more democratic Syria. It is still too early to imagine what kind of role Saudi Arabia could play in the post-Assad Syria, although the conservative kingdom is expected to throw its weight behind Islamist groups within the disparate Syrian opposition.

It is notable how the royal family is consciously positioning itself as the protector of Sunnis against what it sees is Iranian interference in Arab affairs. Syria is a majority Sunni country but the security forces are dominated by Alawites, members of a Shiite minority to which Assad's family belongs.

And therein lies the gravest danger for Syria's multi-religious society: becoming a proxy battleground for the Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia with both sides deliberately playing on the Sunni-Shiite (or Sunni-Alawi) divide, which would greatly inflame sectarian tensions in the country and beyond.

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