Saudi Arabia on Sunday said it would withdraw its members from an Arab League monitoring mission in Syria as the regime there continued to deploy violence against protesters. In Cairo, Prince Saud bin Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister, also called on the international community “to bear its responsibility” and increase pressure on Damascus.
Soon after the Saudi withdrawal, the Qataris demanded a review of the entire Syrian operation. The smaller Persian Gulf states, which usually follow Saudi foreign policy, could pull out their monitors as well. The Qatari emir as recently as last week suggested that Arab troops had to go into Syria to quell the violence.
Twenty-two members of the monitoring mission have quit since their work began last month, claiming that despite their presence, the Syrian government is determined to crush the popular revolt.
A Syrian National Council that is supported by Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as defected elements of the Syrian army, is seated in Turkey. The Arab League urged the formation of a unity government, presumably in conjunction with this body. To that end, they said, Bashar al-Assad should step down and hand power to his vice president.
After ten months of unrest, the Syrian uprising tends to break down increasingly along sectarian lines with Christian, Kurdish and Shia minorities supporting the dictatorship and Sunnis, who are in the majority among Syria’s 23 million population, sympathizing with the protests; protests which, in at least parts of the country, have morphed into armed rebellions.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, supports the anti-government forces in order to weaken Assad’s Ba’athist regime which is allied to Iran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a power struggle for years. With American troops pulled out of Iraq, the country that is home to Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis is now contested as a sphere of influence by both major powers.
The Sunni population in Iraq is concentrated in the south and southwest whereas in Syria, it is the eastern part of the country that is overwhelmingly Sunni. The border that divides them is the legacy of European colonialism. Iraq was once a British protectorate while Syria was ruled by the French. There are actually few differences in culture, language and religious beliefs among the Sunnis who live in the two countries. There may not be substantial differences in political affiliation either.
Reportedly, the Saudis have supplied the Sunni opposition in Syria with satellite phones to organize their protests after the Assad regime was supposed to have had Iranian support in disrupting telephone communications. Reports have also surfaced of Saudi interlocutors approaching Sunni leaders in the eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate which is where Syria’s largest oilfields happen to be situated.
The demise of the Assad regime would be a huge boost to Saudi Arabia’s standing in the region, especially after its favored government in Lebanon was undermined by the militant organization Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, last year. The Shia uprising in Bahrain that coincided with the “Arab Spring” in Egypt in February and March 2010 was regarded with apprehension in Riyadh which quickly sent its troops into the island state to silence the dissent, a move that, naturally, was condemned by Tehran.