Saudi Arabia Forging New Sunni State?

Flag waving in Damascus, Syria, March 2011

Flag waving in Damascus, Syria, March 2011

Is Saudi Arabia conniving with the United States to unseat the Assad regime in Syria? The possible smuggling of satellite phones into the country suggests so but the kingdom’s ultimate aim may not necessarily align with American policy in the region — the creation of a new Sunni state between Syria and Iraq.

Iranian intelligence experts in Damascus attempted to disrupt the Syrian opposition’s telephone and Internet connections in recent weeks, making it all the more difficult for news of the uprising to reach the outside world. To help the rebels, Saudi Arabia and the United States reportedly smuggled thousands of satellite phones into Syria. Other than that, there’s little the Americans can do short of military intervention. President Bashar al-Assad may have lost the “legitimacy to lead” but he doesn’t need Washington for anything, rendering sanctions virtually useless.

Protests erupted in Syria in March after the “Arab Spring” deposed veteran dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. In Bahrain, Shia Muslims also took to the streets to pressure their largely Sunni government into enacting reforms but Saudi troops quelled the uprising before it could pose a serious threat to the small Arab Gulf state’s monarchy.

The oil kingdom is now rooting for the protesters in Syria, or at least some of them. Besides supposedly supplying the anti-government forces with satellite phones in conjunctions with the Americans, Saudi Arabia privately and clandestinely poured money and arms into the country in the hopes of stiffening the resistance and buying the loyalty of desert tribes.

The ultimate aim could be the erection of a new state encompassing not only the Euphrates’ river valley in Syria roughly corresponding with the southeastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate but Iraq’s central Al Anbar province as well. Both are overwhelmingly Sunni and home to more than a couple of million people. Such a country would put a natural geostrategic ally of Saudi Arabia’s in the heart of the Arab world — a “forward operating base” for Riyadh from where to watch Syria, Turkey and Iraq, three Middle Eastern states that are increasingly assertive, and from where to counter Iranian influence.

Riyadh blamed Tehran for stirring the uprising in Bahrain even if there was little evidence of Iranian involvement. The accusation and Saudi led military action nevertheless demonstrated just how worried the Saudis were about Iran extending its influence in the region.

They have ample reason to be concerned. The Saudi backed government in Lebanon was undermined by Iranian ally Hezbollah earlier this year while two of the kingdom’s allies in containing the Islamic Republic, Egypt and Iraq, have been rocked by internal unrest. With Iraq now a democracy — ruled by a Shiite prime minister — and Hosni Mubarak out of office and facing trial, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the only two powers still standing in the Middle East.

A political disintegration of Iraq and Syria, prompted by the creation of another Saudi client state, would weaken both a friend of Iran’s and one of its traditional foes. The United States, after spending considerable blood and treasure stabilizing Iraq, might rather not see its experiment in multiethnic Arab democracy fall apart. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to Syria after Assad moreover. But the development could bolster the club of pro-Western regimes in the region.

Neighboring Jordan conveniently joined the Gulf Cooperation Council two months ago which formally sanctioned March’s intervention in Bahrain. Whether Morocco also joins the organization or not, it is a moderate Islamist bulwark against Iranian encroachment in West Asia, providing Saudi foreign policy with extra legitimacy and sometimes an alternative to dollar diplomacy. Whatever the emirates contribute in funding, the Saudis are obviously in the lead. And they’re disappointed about their American ally’s reluctance to support them.

The Saudis didn’t particularly care for President Barack Obama’s championing of human rights and reform in the face of the Arab Spring and blamed him for forcing Mubarak out of power.

From Washington’s perspective, the alliance with the Wahhabi kingdom is one of convenience. It regards its religious intolerance and backwardness as an embarrassment even if the two countries share interests in the region. Both want to keep the oil flowing, the Gulf free of Iranian influence and neither wants the ayatollahs to go nuclear and embolden their terrorist proxies in the Levant. The clear strategic rationale of the relationship tends to be overshadowed by moral objections on America’s part however. Saudi nation building abroad is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows in the State Department therefore.

Actually, sponsoring the foundation of a brand new republic (presumably) in the Middle East wouldn’t be such a stretch for the United States ideologically. It’s not as though today’s national boundaries in the Middle East necessarily reflect cultural and religious divides — let alone encompass specific peoples or nations. Rather, a Sunni polity separate of multicultural Syria and Shia majority Iraq conforms much better to notions of sovereignty and self determination than the status quo.

It’s not often that American interests and ideology coincide in the Middle East. The risks of too overtly endorsing the Saudi effort — if it is a serious effort to begin with — are clear. America could be perceived as once again meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states. Success, on the other hand, could leave Iraq, then virtually a Shiite homeland, much stabler and Saudi Arabia, a pivotal Western ally, in an enhanced position to balance against Iranian intrigue. Now Washington has only to recognize the opportunity.

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