In an opinion piece in Christian Science Monitor entitled, “How Saudi Arabia can contain Iran — and other benefits from Syria’s turmoil,” Bilal Saab explores Saudi Arabia’s complex relationship with Syria. He examines this relationship in the context of two important regional developments: the widespread uprisings against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Saudi Arabia’s perennial (and currently intensified) rivalry with Iran.
Saab explains that Saudi King Abdullah’s recent public admonition of al-Assad represents a dramatic break from the kingdom’s classic stance toward its ambivalent Syrian neighbor. According to Saab, Saudi Arabia’s original approach to its Syrian “ally” was
to turn a blind eye (at least temporarily) to Syrian mischief in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq – even if it came at the cost of important Saudi interests — on the condition that the Syrians show good faith and gradually distance themselves from Iran. While Abdullah never expected Mr. Assad to break completely with Iran, he wanted to see the Syrian leader cooperate on sensitive matters and give more priority to Arab affairs.
Saab’s description of this Saudi policy generates important questions about the Saudi-Syria-Iran dynamic. Most important of all: How could Saudi Arabia allow Syria to serve as a staging ground for Iran’s regional agenda without knowing that doing so would do more to erode Saudi influence than bolster it?
It’s possible that Saab’s characterization of King Abdullah’s strategy wrongfully assumes that Saudi Arabia retained confidence in al-Assad as a partner and believed it could extract any meaningful benefits from that partnership. Specifically, how can Syria act with “mischief” and somehow simultaneously show “good faith”? In its zero-sum game with Iran, the kingdom must have come to understand that a leader complicit in Iran’s gains is equally complicit in Saudi losses. Saudi Arabia simply had no choice, barring armed confrontation with Iran, but to fall victim to the cozy relations Syrian leaders enjoyed with Ahmadinejad and company.
Nonetheless, given the persistence of protest in Syria, Saab explains how this old system might well break down. He argues that should al-Assad’s regime collapse, the kingdom, “could find a ‘natural’ ally in a new, Sunni-dominated government in Damascus, and consequently extend its influence in the Levant.” He continues by saying that should a Saudi-friendly government emerge in Syria, “Iran will lose a gigantic gateway to the Arab world and therefore find it much harder to fulfill its goals in the Middle East.”
At the same time, Saab explains that Saudi Arabia must find the ideal balance between pressuring al-Assad too forcefully, which might ultimately embolden regular Saudis to demand greater participation in Saudi politics, and pushing his regime too little. This is where he brings Turkey into the discussion; he warns that if Saudi Arabia chooses to stay quiet in the coming weeks, “Turkey could step in as a major power broker and manage Syria’s political future.”
The prospect of Turkey swooping in at Saudi Arabia’s expense isn’t very convincing, simply because it is difficult to view the Saudi-Turkish relationship in zero-sum terms. In an increasingly turbulent region, two stable countries that enjoy friendly ties would seize on the opportunity for cooperation. Though Turkey might use economic incentives to drive its diplomatic engagement with a post-Assad Syria and Saudi Arabia might rely more heavily on emphasizing shared Sunni identity, the two nevertheless see value in pursuing a firm triangular strategic relationship.
Calling attention to Iraq reaffirms this point. As a legitimate, formidable challenge to al-Assad mounts, Iran has dedicated considerable energy to enhancing its influence over Iraqi politics, perhaps in anticipation that it may lose its longtime Syrian linchpin. Saab overlooks the strong possibility that Saudi Arabia and Turkey mount a coordinated effort that harnesses their collective political clout and economic strength to counter Iran’s stranglehold over Iraqi diplomacy.
Therefore, rather than fuel a Turkish-Saudi competition, regional happenings actually provide a valuable opportunity for cooperation between two predominantly Sunni countries that have found strength in their own stability in the most unstable year in recent memory.
Disagreements on Middle East politics shouldn’t shock anyone. Either way, Saab presents a useful appraisal of Saudi Arabia’s strategic options in the wake of growing opposition to al-Assad. Worth the read.