Saudi Arabia: Arming Syrian Opposition “Excellent Idea”

Riyadh is waging a proxy war against Iran in siding with the rebels in Syria.

Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, attends a conference in London, England, February 23
Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, attends a conference in London, England, February 23 (FCO)

The Saudi foreign minister told representatives of the “Friends of Syria” in Tunisia on Friday that arming the Syrian opposition would be an “excellent idea.”

His Qatari counterpart recommended the creation of an Arab peacekeeping force to “open humanitarian corridors to provide security to the Syrian people.” France supports the erection of humanitarian corridors or enclaves to shelter civilians and provide aid and medical assistance to citizens in beleaguered cities in Syria. Qatar’s emir suggested in January that “to stop the killing” in the country, “some troops should go.”

A Free Syria Army, which is leading the armed resistance against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has asked for weapons. Conservative lawmakers in the United States support such assistance.

President Barack Obama has promised to use “every tool available” to him to help the Syrian opposition and said that other countries could not be “bystanders” while Syria descended into civil war. An armed intervention, as in Libya last year, is still unlikely though. Syria is far more divided than Libya was and its state army more potent.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most vocal among Arab states in their support of foreign intervention in Syria. Damascus was suspended as a member of the Arab League in November. Reports of Saudi Arabia funneling satellite phones into Syria surfaced as early as August of last year when Iran was allegedly helping the regime disrupt telecommunications and the unrest in Syria was five months old.

Riyadh’s championing of the “Arab Spring” in Syria has probably less to do with a sincere desire to see democracy succeed in a fellow Middle Eastern state and is part of the proxy war it wages with Iran.

The two nations have been engaged in a power struggle for years. Since American troops pulled out of Iraq, the country that is home to Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis is contested as a sphere of influence by both major powers in the region.

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.

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 ally, 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 which had embraced the Bahrainian revolt.

Neither particularly wants democracy and freedom if ever the uprisings in Bahrain and Syria were about those things. They want to see each other fail.