Riyadh to the Frontlines: Saudi Takes on the Levant

By Fadi Assaf.

As U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, and Iranian influence in it obviously makes a multifaceted progress, Riyadh seems to have chosen to come out of its reserve and open the battle of Baghdad. Accused of terrorism by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi Vice-President Tareq al-Hashimi received a head-of-state welcome during his “official” visit to Qatar, while he enjoys the protection of Kurdish authorities in Erbil and is wanted by the Iraqi justice. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein’s Vice-President Izzat al-Douri, wanted since 2003 by American and Iraqi authorities, reappeared in the media to hammer away mercilessly at Iran, while he reportedly enjoys the protection of Saudi intelligence in an Arab ally country, possibly Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. In parallel, car bombs continue to target Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and elsewhere, even if Sunni fundamentalist terrorism, materially backed by Saudi and Arab Gulf, is now interested in another “anti-Iranian” front, Syria.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia

No different than in Iraq, the convergence of views between Saudis and Americans on Syria seems far from perfect. This fact sometimes explains the temptation of Saudi leaders to act as lone rangers on these two areas. This also explains the attempts by Riyadh and Doha, to “return” to Iraq by possible and accessible routes, even if this Riyadh-wanted repositioning can be done without systematic coordination with the Americans … It also partly explains the determination of Riyadh and Doha to increase pressure on Syria, though Washington is reluctant to force the way and does not necessarily follow the lead of Saudis and Qataris … On 27 April, a ship carrying weapons recovered from Libya, bound for a Tripoli port in Northern Lebanon, was seized by the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL’s naval unit, carrying an arsenal destined via Lebanon for the Syrian rebels. Yet another indicator of Qatari and Saudi willingness to establish a fait accompli on the Syrian scene, facing their American allies…

Saudi leaders, along with younger, more dynamic Qatari rulers eying the aging Saudi leadership on bilateral issues, are increasingly involved in the Iraqi and Syrian cases. The fight against Iranian influence in Arab-Sunni countries is among considerations that motivate their actions. Their efforts aim to counter this expanding influence after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq under U.S. occupation, and try to destabilize the Syrian-Iranian alliance in the Levant, still based on the agreement between the Alawite regime in Damascus and Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah – though the radical Palestinian movement Hamas begins to move away from this alliance. Saudis and Qataris bet on the widest possible international alliance – as in the case of Libya. They expressed solidarity with the UAE against Iran, calling for a GCC mobilization against the recent visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to an Emirati island “occupied” by Iran in the Gulf. Meanwhile, the Shiite populations of Bahrain, most of whom have always claimed their Arab identity, and have consistently sought to preserve the peaceful nature of their protest against the minority Sunni regime, are increasingly tempted to jump in the arms of Iran and opt for a radicalization of their actions … In addition to developments in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, home to Saudi Shiites populations, begins to move again, with a constantly unabated mutual misunderstanding with authorities, that could end up fueling and radicalizing local demands and highlight their sectarian and even regional dimension (for the first time, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah mentions al-Qatif) …

Without dwelling on the case of Yemen, still a major source of concern for the Saudi leadership, even after the induction of President Hadi, it is increasingly obvious that the environment of Saudi Arabia is deteriorating, and that Saudi leaders, aging and weakened by succession quarrels, seem tempted to export their problems to other theaters. Iraq and Syria are again a priority for the Saudis, who doubt in the commitment of their main U.S. ally. Saudis no longer expect a diehard commitment from Washington against Iran and its influence in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. Saudis believe they should impose a new fait accompli, as they did in Bahrain, or push the Americans to impose political solutions to their advantage, as they did in Yemen. These efforts are deemed essential, to alleviate the pressures on their own regime, and open the battle of Baghdad, correlated to the Battle of Damascus … Such is the Saudi strategy in Iraq and Syria, and facing Iran, where Riyadh still fears a possible rapprochement or any possibility of understanding with Washington …

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