Feeding the crisis: the Saudi engagement in the Syrian war

 by Laura Rufalco, Trainee, GREMMO (Lyon, 23/03/2014)

There are at least two ways of facing the Syrian crisis: first we have to take into account the internal dynamic of the conflict, which at the beginning was opposing a dictatorial government to an important part of the population discontent with the regime. As the regime crushed demonstrators, the conflict emerged in multifaceted groups with different ideologies and goals, but aiming to dethrone Assad. In this first level, we have the regime combating different groups, secular and religious – including different confessions. But in order to understand the dynamics of the crisis and why it is lasting so long, we must take into account another level: the regional/international one, where we find regional rivalries opposing Saudi Arabia and Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United States (USA) and Iran, USA and Russia… this is indeed a conflict that has mobilized a multitude of actors in the national, regional and international level. A first look in the local impact of the crisis shows us two regional giants opposing themselves and directly involved in the conflict: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

We can hardly understand the role Saudi Arabia plays in the Syrian crisis without taking into consideration the dynamics of the turbulent relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both countries are regional rivals with opposing regimes, but having to find a way to coexist without escalating tensions, in particular to not put into risk their oil exploitation1. From a western perspective, it is sometimes difficult to understand how nowadays religion affiliations can play such an important role in politics. Indeed, one of the biggest rivalry opposing Iran and Saudi Arabia comes from the two countries official religion, with the first one practicing Shia Islam, while the second practices Sunni Islam. However, both states have in its territories minorities belonging to the other religion, which is a factor that has boosted their rivalry for long: they do not compete only for regional hegemony, but to prevent each other of having any sort of influence within their own borders. We cannot simplify the matters by saying that their opposition is merely related to the different confessions existing in both countries. However, the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by the rise of a Shia government in Iraq, fed the rivalry between the two countries2, since Saudi Arabia is more fearful of the influence the Shias leaders can have in the region.

The country is henceforth deeply involved in the Syrian war, in a way to prevent the Iranian influence to further widespread throughout the region. Eliminating Assad’s regime would be a way of diminishing the Iranian influence in the Middle East, without directly confronting Teheran, which could put into great risk the stability of the region. In the previous article3 we saw that Saudi Arabia is facing a great challenge in their attempt to support the Syrian opposition, mainly because of the multiplicity of actors engaged in the conflict. The past two years witnessed the arrival on the field of groups linked to the Al Qaida, which caused the USA and other Western countries to be more fearful of supporting the Syrian opposition4. A blind engagement of Saudi Arabia towards these actors could cause their relation with the USA to be directly impacted, creating an important distance between Riyadh and Washington5.

In order to prevent their alliance with the USA to be further vulnerable, the Saudi Arabian government had to change their positioning towards the Syrian crisis. This was made visible by the dismissal of prince Bandar bin Sultan as the head of the government’s strategy towards Syria. Sultan was replaced by the Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, appreciated by the USA for fighting Al Qaida in Yemen6, and engaged with the CIA in the attempt to extinguish Al Qaida within Saudi Arabia7. This change in the Saudi government implies that the country is no longer only aiming to fight Assad, but also to fight Al Qaida and other extremists groups engaged in the conflict. Nayef is indeed the key-figure to reassure the USA that any military weapon provided by the Saudis will not reach extremists groups8. To further emphasize this new positioning towards extremists groups, the Saudi government prohibited any citizen of the country to enlist in the conflict, as well as to directly donate money to the Syrian opposition9. The Saudi government also released a list classifying some groups as terrorists: this list included both Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS10. These measures will not only reassure the USA, but it will protect the Saudi government itself, since it fears the influence of extreme groups towards it own population, as it was the case during the Afghanistan war11. Under that perspective, and keeping the precaution to not be affiliated to extremists groups, Saudi Arabia is still deeply involved with some opposition groups fighting Assad. But by which means are they doing so?

In a first moment, Saudi aid was directed to the Free Syrian Army12. With the rise of other more effectives – and extremists- groups fighting on the ground, Saudi government decided to support what they consider to be “moderate” groups, labeled as “national djihadistes” from the Islamic Front13. The country specially directed millions of dollars to the Army of Islam14, directed by Zahran Alloush, an important ally from Riyadh. The group receives financial and military support from Saudi Arabia15, the country being the biggest source of funding for the Army of Islam16. Seeing that Washington is getting more distance from the conflict, Saudi Arabia is trying to engage more regional actors in the crisis, notably Pakistan17. Riyadh is not only planning to buy weapons from Pakistan18, but to engage Pakistani instructors that would train rebel groups of about 50,000 combatants19. By doing so, Saudi Arabia expects to give to the opposition an efficient way of counter-attacking the regime.

Without Saudi support, probably the opposition would have been completely crushed by the regime. Same goes to the regime: without Russian and Iranian support, it would not have been able to resist and to regain ground. Internationally, Saudi Arabia accuses Russia of making the Syrian crisis last longer20, meanwhile Moscow affirm that Saudi Arabia is putting the security of the region in danger, by attempting to provide Pakistani weapons to the opposition21. The Saudi implication in the crisis has therefore a direct impact in the country’s own national and foreign policy. Therefore, a relevant question appears when we face the complexity of the situation: How far will Saudi Arabia go to overthrown Assad?

By now, there is no right answer to this question; we can only imagine a few scenarios. Since the most effective groups combating Assad are linked to Al Qaida22, the Saudi Arabia government would have to stop the internal war between the opposition by ceasing to be opposed to these groups – but this would mean jeopardizing both their domestic and international politics, especially their relation with the USA, a line that they wouldn’t cross.

Another possibility would be that Saudi Arabia arrives to further implicate the USA in the war, once they reassure Washington that the Al Qaeda threat has been eliminated23. A larger military and financial support from the USA could change the balance of the battles and protect Saudi Arabia from any regional impact the conflict may have. However, this possibility has been excluded from most analysts, since Washington already testified of their lack of willingness to have a direct role in this war. Riyadh previously excluded any possibility of a direct implication in the conflict as well. That means that, if Assad troops continue gaining ground, Saudi Arabia will be faced with two choices: continue to give financial and military support to the Syrian opposition, making the conflict to last and the humanitarian crisis to grow, or to accept that Assad continue to govern the country, allowing the Iranian influence in the region to be expanded.

Bibliography:

HOURCADE, Bernard. Géopolitique de l’Iran.  Armand Colin,  Paris : 2010. 289 pages.

MAINSK, Michel. L’Iran et ses voisins du Sud : une relation sous tension. Outre-Terre, 2011/2 n°28, p. 427-445.

RIGOULET-ROZE, David. Géopolitique de l’Arabie Saoudite. Armand Colin, Paris, 2005. 308 pages.

News :

Author unknow. Arábia Saudita acusa Rússia de perpetuar guerra civil na Síria. Globo.com, 01/03/2014. Last consulted on 03/22/2014, on : http://g1.globo.com/mundo/siria/noticia/2014/03/arabia-saudita-acusa-russia-de-perpetuar-guerra-civil-na-siria.html

Author unknow. Arabia Saudita: alleanza con gli USA a rischio su Siria e Iran. Repubblica.it, 10/23/2013. Last consulted on 03/22/2014, on:  http://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2013/10/23/news/arabia_saudita_contro_gli_usa-69227577/

Author  unknown. Syria files : the opposition. Syria Deeply. Last consulted on 03/23/2014, on :  http://www.syriadeeply.org/background/opposition/

BARTHE , Benjamin. L’Arabie saoudite veut endiguer le phénomène djihadiste en Syrie. Le Monde, 06/02/2014. Consulté le 20/03/2014, sur : http://www.lemonde.fr/moyen-orient/article/2014/02/06/riyad-determine-a-endiguer-le-phenomene-djihadistes-en-syrie_4361650_1667081.html

BLACK, Ian. Saudi Arabia to spend millions to train new rebel force. The Guardian, 11/07/2013. Last consulted on 03/19/2014, on: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/07/syria-crisis-saudi-arabia-spend-millions-new-rebel-force

DUFOUR, Jean-Louis. L’Arabie saoudite demande au Pakistan de bien vouloir l’aider en Syrie. L’économiste [quotidien marocain], le 05/03/2014. Consulté le 21/03/2014, sur : http://www.leconomiste.com/article/919041-l-arabie-saoudite-demande-au-pakistan-de-bien-vouloir-l-aider-en-syriepar-le-colonel-

ENTOUS, Adam; KNICKMEYER, Ellen. Saudi Arabia Replaces Key Official in Effort to Arm Syria Rebels: Frustrated Kingdom Sets Out to Assuage U.S. Worries on Extremists in Three-Year Conflict. The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2014. Last consulted on 02/19/2014, on : http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303775504579392942097203608

GILBERT, Ben. Saudi Arabia walks a fine line in backing Syrian rebellion. In: Aljazeera America, January 20, 2014. In: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/20/saudi-arabia-walksafinelinkinbackingsyriarebellion.html. Last consulted on March 13, 2014.

KENNER, David. Saudi Arabia’s shadow war. Forein Policy, 11/06/2013. Last consulted on 03/23/2014, on: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/11/06/saudi_arabias_shadow_war?

MALBRUNOT, Georges. Le nouveau visage de la rébellion syrienne. Le Figaro, 13/01/2014. Consulté le 20/03/2014, sur http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2014/01/13/01003-20140113ARTFIG00585-le-nouveau-visage-de-la-rebellion-syrienne.php

MALBRUNOT, Georges. Syrie : une guerre par procuration entre l’Iran et l’Arabie saoudite. Le Figaro. 13/01/2014.  Consulté le 20/03/2014 sur http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2014/01/13/01003-20140113ARTFIG00602-syrie-une-guerre-par-procuration-entre-l-iran-et-l-arabie-saoudite.php

SOULEIMAN ALI, Abdallah. Saudi terrorism list raises question about Islamic Front. Translated by Rani Geha. Al-monitor, 03/10/2014. Last consulted on 03/201/2014, on: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/03/saudi-terrorism-list-syria-spark-new-conflicts.html#

 

  1. HOURCADE, Bernard. Géopolitique de l’Iran.  Armand Colin,  Paris : 2010. 289 pages. []
  2. Idem. []
  3. The paradoxical position of Saudi Arabia towards the Syrian conflict, 03/14/2014. []
  4. Author unknown. Syria files : the opposition. Syria Deeply. []
  5. Author unknow. Arabia Saudita: alleanza con gli USA a rischio su Siria e Iran. Repubblica.it, 10/23/2013. []
  6. ENTOUS, Adam; KNICKMEYER, Ellen. Saudi Arabia Replaces Key Official in Effort to Arm Syria Rebels: Frustrated Kingdom Sets Out to Assuage U.S. Worries on Extremists in Three-Year Conflict. The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2014. []
  7. DUFOUR, Jean-Louis. L’Arabie saoudite demande au Pakistan de bien vouloir l’aider en Syrie. L’économiste [quotidien marocain], le 05/03/2014 []
  8. Idem. []
  9. BARTHE , Benjamin. L’Arabie saoudite veut endiguer le phénomène djihadiste en Syrie. Le Monde, 06/02/2014. []
  10. SOULEIMAN ALI, Abdallah. Saudi terrorism list raises question about Islamic Front. Translated by Rani Geha. Al-monitor, 03/10/2014. []
  11. GILBERT, Ben. Saudi Arabia walks a fine line in backing Syrian rebellion. In: Aljazeera America, January 20, 2014. []
  12. BARTHE , Benjamin, 06/02/2014. Op. ct. []
  13. DUFOUR, Jean-Louis, 05/03/2014. Op. ct. []
  14. BLACK, Ian. Saudi Arabia to spend millions to train new rebel force. The Guardian, 11/07/2013. []
  15. MALBRUNOT, Georges. Syrie : une guerre par procuration entre l’Iran et l’Arabie saoudite. Le Figaro. 13/01/2014. []
  16. SOULEIMAN ALI, Abdallah, 03/10/2014.Op. ct. []
  17. KENNER, David. Saudi Arabia’s shadow war. Forein Policy, 11/06/2013. []
  18. DUFOUR, Jean-Louis, 05/03/2014. Op. ct. []
  19. KENNER, David, 11/06/2013. Op. ct. []
  20. Author unknow. Arábia Saudita acusa Rússia de perpetuar guerra civil na Síria. Globo.com, 01/03/2014. []
  21. DUFOUR, Jean-Louis, 05/03/2014. Op. Ct. []
  22. Author unknown. Syria files : the opposition. Syria Deeply. []
  23. DUFOUR, Jean-Louis,05/03/2014. Op. Ct. []

Une réflexion au sujet de « Feeding the crisis: the Saudi engagement in the Syrian war »

  1. Pocahontas

    Good overview of the situation – unit even grasps the duality of the Saudi position. Perhaps a deeper analysis of the impact of non-Islamic actors can counter balance the idea of an Islamic revolution

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