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Saudis Shun Diplomacy in Syria Crisis

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Saudi Arabia has backed Syria's rebels in a civil war that has directly affected much of the region, but with little transparency in the kingdom, its precise role remains unclear.

While many across the Middle East welcome the diplomatic push for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, Riyadh, one of the strongest supporters of U.S. military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is not happy about the switch from strikes to talks.

"[The Saudis] estimate that the deal over chemical weapons is, one, not feasible, but, two, makes it even harder to intervene and brings Bashar al-Assad back into the bargaining game, which is their biggest problem," says Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "They've spent the past two and half years trying to delegitimize Assad, and that deal turns Assad into a partner."

According to Hokayem, Saudi leaders had wanted an even bigger military campaign against Assad than the limited strikes outlined by the U.S.

It's a dynamic that has played out throughout the conflict: Saudis giving money and weapons to the full spectrum of Syria's rebels, with the U.S. apparently taking a more cautious approach.

Riyadh's logic is partially sectarian, with the kingdom's Sunni leaders arming the mainly Sunni rebels: An offensive against Assad, of the Shi'ite-offshoot Alawite sect, could tip the balance of power in a stalemate that has neighboring countries lined up largely along religious lines.

But political scientist Christian Donath, of the American University in Cairo, thinks current U.S. plans would fail to do that.

"I don't know whether the U.S. strikes are going to have any kind of effect, specifically on the sectarian tension, or whether it essentially will just serve to weaken to some extent the Assad regime's military capacity," he says.

Saudi animosity is not aimed exclusively at Syria's government, but also at Assad's biggest regional backer, Iran, a Shi'ite-led Saudi rival. Syria also receives additional help from Shi'ite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

But political analyst Hokayem says it's not all about religion.

"The regime of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah have allowed Iran to become a primary power in the Eastern Mediterranean," he says. "And there's a sense that if you win in Syria, you win the entire Levant because Syria is the big power there."

But other analysts say there may be no winning a regional struggle for dominance.

"Saudi Arabia is rich in oil, but their military capability, their soft power and their model is weak," says Mustafa Labbad, director of the Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies. "So everyone is ambitious but no single country can play a regional role as it is described in international relations and strategy."

But that hasn't kept Saudi Arabia, or its rivals, from trying.

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