Saudi Arabia Fears Another US Disappointment in Syria

Saudi Arabia may be let down by the United States in Syria as it was in Iraq.

al-monitor Saudi King Abdullah welcomes US President Barack Obama upon his arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, June 3, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed.

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us, syrian civil war, syrian crisis, syrian, saudi, iran, diplomacy, barack obama

Jun 25, 2013

In his meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal spoke frankly about the US position in Iraq, contrary to the usual Saudi diplomatic approach. It is worth mentioning that eight years ago, specifically on Sept. 27, 2005, Faisal said that US policy in Iraq has divided the country and handed it over to Iran.

Addressing the Americans, he said, “If you allow a civil war, Iraq as we know it will end forever, thus pushing the region into a disaster and the Arabs into conflict. Iranians will intervene in the south and the Turks in the north, and then the rest of the Arab countries in the region will get involved.”

Expressing his surprise, he added, “We have fought a war together to keep Iran out of Iraq after the ousting of Iraq from Kuwait, and here we are now handing over the whole country to Iran without any justification.” The foreign minister asserted in this respect that “Iranians are heading to areas secured by US forces; they are paying money, gathering up allies, establishing police forces, and arming militias there, while taking shelter behind US and British forces.”

Has the situation changed in eight years? The US will disappoint the Saudi foreign minister even more than he expected. Eight years later, the US — now governed by a Democratic administration — seems careless with the ongoing destruction in Syria. US President Barack Obama is busy with Jabhat al-Nusra, disregarding the daily multiplying fatalities, as if he does not care about Iranian interference and Russian support for the Syrian regime. It also seems that he does not care about the situation's repercussions on the interests of America's regional friends. Israel's silence regarding the Obama administration's position on the war in Syria confirms that Israel's interests and security are central to the US decision on the matter. 

There are several factors to be taken into consideration on the US position, including the limited impact of Saudi Arabia on US regional policy — especially in terms of issues directly affecting Saudi interests — which does not seem commensurate with the weight of the political, security and economic interests underpinning the two allies' relationship. The picture looks even worse in light of Washington's statements about its policy and the position of its allies’ interests in this policy. The American and Iranian influence in Iraq from the Bush to Obama administrations means, for example, that Washington is giving itself freedom of movement and choice, and is not allowing its alliances to restrict such freedom.

Faisal's statements confirm that Washington failed to take into account Riyadh’s interests when it drew up its Iraq policy during the occupation, and when it colluded to share influence with Iran afterward. The same situation is repeating itself now, as seen with Obama's reluctant position on supporting the rebels in Syria. Washington and Riyadh share the objective of ousting President Bashar al-Assad, but they differ on how to achieve this goal and what post-Assad Syria should look like. Moreover, they don’t seem to fully agree on Iran’s position in all these arrangements.

Why is this relationship taking this path? Is it true that Saudi Arabia is putting more into this relationship than it is getting in return? Why doesn’t Washington take into consideration the interests of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and even Arab countries when determining its Syria position? This is a decisive war. Its parties and their positions are known. It has become clear that the fall of the Syrian regime is not only in the interest of Syria, but also in that of the Arab world. On the other hand, Iran is the only party that believes the fall of Assad undermines the basis of its regional project. Israel and Iran would prefer the Assad family stay in power, but since this is impossible, Israel now favors the continuation of the war in Syria. This ethos was expressed with the idea, “Let the Arabs kill themselves quietly,” as stated in the Israeli newspaper Yediot​h Ahronot last week.

It does not matter now that the Obama administration agrees with Israel on its political position and vision behind this position. What is important is US alignment with Israel and its adoption of a position that would be devastating for all parties. Furthermore, it is remarkable that Obama, an African-American person who came to the White House thanks to the values ​​of justice and equality, is now letting down Syrians who are facing a regime attacking these same values ​​with fire and blood, destroying cities and committing massacres in order to remain in power.

Last week I tackled the reasons behind the Obama administration's position, so this week I will make a quick reference to said reasons. Obama’s position is based on three considerations.

The first is the reluctant base of his foreign policy and his inability to break free from the impact of the Bush administration's previous wars. Thus, he is unable to make a distinction between the cases of Iraq and Syria. The second is Israel’s interests, as noted above. The third is Washington's ultimate desire for a political solution to the Syrian crisis within the scope of an understanding with Russia. This is obvious and has been publicly announced. Yet, as I mentioned last week, Obama also wants an understanding with Iran. Hassan Rouhani's victory in Iran's presidential elections further boosted this trend inside and outside the administration.

In this respect, the following questions may be posed: What is the nature of the desired understanding with Iran? What are its limits and objectives? How will it affect the fate of the political situation in post-Assad Syria? In light of its policy, the US has been asserting since 2003 that Washington is aware of the sectarian divide in the region and that it prefers, following the events of Sept. 11, to break Sunni power dominance in the region. This is why it handed over authority in Iraq to Iran's Shiite allies. Is the Obama administration's position toward Syria a continuation of the same policy but with different methods and justifications?

Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Syrian subject is consecrated through two inseparable matters. The first is the fall of the Syrian regime and the second is the halt of Iran’s influence in Syria and consequently in Iraq. In the meantime, the US position is imposing challenges on Saudi Arabia, whose avoidance and underestimation are no longer a wise or beneficial approach.

The first of these outcomes is that Saudi policy in Iraq has failed and led to Iraq's disastrous invasion of Kuwait, then to the American occupation of Iraq and finally to an Iranian-American shared influence therein. This is also the case regarding the failure of Saudi policy with Syria and Lebanon, a policy that resulted in a closed sectarian alliance between the Syrian regime and Iran during the reign of Assad's son, and in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which sabotaged the Saudi-Syrian understanding. It also resulted in the emergence of Hezbollah as a striking military force under the command of Iranian leadership, not only in Lebanon, but also regionally.

Finally, the failure of this policy is reflected by the fact that after a relationship of more than 40 years with the Syrian regime, it appears that this regime was indeed a real threat not only to Syria, but also to the region. This is not to mention the Arab states’ failure — including Saudi Arabia — in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Why this failure? The failure resulted from the fact that foreign policy retains a mechanism to keep up with others in order to earn their support, instead of building up trump cards to be used against other parties. This is normal, since this policy is not backed by a proportional military force. On the other hand, the situations in Yemen and Bahrain are not yet stable.

All this demonstrates that there is a dire need for Saudi Arabia to review its foreign policy vision and objectives. What makes it even harder on Saudi Arabia is that the current circumstances have made its regional responsibility greater than those of other countries.

Thanks to the US and Iran, Iraq was eliminated from the regional equation and the Syrian regime has been pushed toward a devastating civil war, paving the way for Iran, which was waiting for its chance to spread its influence.

In Egypt, the revolution turned out to be in the hands of an unprofessional and undeveloped political elite, which sent the country spiraling toward crisis, further weakening Egypt’s regional role. Egypt seems to be paralyzed. Saudi Arabia is the only country that was left unscathed in the Levant. These changes show that the political map in the Arab world, and perhaps the geographical one as well, will be different from before the Arab Spring revolutions.

What’s more, US policy has been less focused on the region, as the US has shifted its focus from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. This requires Saudi Arabia to review its foreign and security policies so as to build its regional and international relations.

Since foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, Saudi Arabia needs to examine its internal strategies as well. It is true that America has let Saudi Arabia down in Iraq and now in Syria. However, is it also true that foreign policy has let itself down in Iraq, so will it work in Syria?

Foreign policy that is not based on equivalent military power of a nation like Saudi Arabia does not do much good.

On the other hand, this weak foreign policy reflects the country's weak policy and administration. Thus, this vulnerability is closely related to the state’s concept of its national security, as well as the nature of its relations to society and constitutional institutions. All these are reflections of the constitutional formula on which a nation bases its external and domestic policies.

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