Published on February 4th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
Image © AP Photo/Andoni Lubaki
Why Saudi Arabia does not want regime change in Syria
Ever since the Syrian opposition took up arms against the Syrian regime in the summer of 2011, we have heard countless number of times that Saudi Arabia is behind the opposition and is arming Islamist rebels. The Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, is said to be the new ‘Al-Qaeda’ that is operating with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Al-Nusra is the best funded, trained and resourced rebel group within the FSA and is Saudi backed. A consensus has emerged that Saudi Arabia wishes to topple the Assad regime to strike a blow against Iran and Iranian influence. Saudi foreign policy is often reduced to ‘irrational Wahhabi’ tendencies against Shia influence and that the stand off between Iran and Saudi Arabia is part of an ‘ancient Islamic civil war’. The Syrian president is an Alawite which is on off-shot of Shiaism, thus it is ‘natural’ that Syria allies itself with Shia Iran and ‘natural’ that Sunni Saudi Arabia opposes it.
The sectarian reductionism, which is popular in the western discourse on Middle Eastern politics, is both simplistic and inaccurate. Sectarian identities do exist in Middle Eastern politics, but they often sit alongside other political identities. The same can be said for the reductionism on Saudi foreign policy, it is true that there is a stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but this stand-off is governed not by religion, but by realpolitik as both countries battle to be the regional superpower. Saudi foreign policy is often difficult to analyse, as decisions are made behind closed doors, between a select few within the Saudi royal family. There is talk in the Arab media, that Saudi Arabia is shifting its position on Syria, this shift was a ‘result’ of Saudi Arabia’s ‘mistaken’ assumption that the Assad regime would fall quickly. Because Syria hasn’t fallen yet, Saudi Arabia has resumed diplomatic efforts with Syria in order to resolve the crisis.
It is noteworthy, that in his recent speeches, Bashar Al-Assad has refused to mention Saudi Arabia, despite claims of Saudi backed opposition groups. Even more telling, was an interview he gave to Russia Today last November. Whilst condemning Turkey’s stance towards Syria, accusing Turkey of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ and Erdogan of being the ‘New Sultan’. He was much more cautious when asked about Saudi Arabia, even going as far as explaining to the reporter, the internal dynamics of Saudi politics. It is true that Saudi Arabia is funding the opposition and the opposition wants to topple that Assad regime, but that does not mean that Saudi Arabia does. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is based on regional order and that all Arab countries regardless of their ‘camp’ (Saudi or Iran), reinforce one another regimes and that current Arab leaderships are necessary for regional stability.
The Syrian revolution has presented an opportunity for the Saudi regime to clip the wings of the Syrian regimes alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in limiting Iranian influence, however this interest does not come with the fall of the Ba’athist regime. Besides limiting Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia hopes to stop the Arab spring from spreading to other countries and the Syrian civil war does this, as it has reached a stalemate. This is the best outcome for Saudi Arabia, as it weakens the Syrian regime and makes future ‘negotiations’ between the two, in Saudi’s favour. In other words, a weaker, but still in power, Ba’athist regime works better for Saudi Arabia, as this regime is ‘the devil we know’ for them and can be negotiated with. Also the continual slaughter of Syrians plays out well on Saudi TV, not only does this buy Saudi Arabia support in the ‘wider’ Arab world, it also sends a subtle message to its own citizens about the ‘dangers’ of rising up.
There are also reports that President Assad ‘believes’, that he cannot win the whole of Syria back and so his best option is to continue the civil war, until the opposition runs out of steam or one of the state sponsors of the uprising, decides to talk. For Saudi Arabia, this means that they have a willing partner to negotiate with. The Islamists are more problematic for the Saudis, Islamist groups have in the past turned against Saudi Arabia, denouncing its monarchy and calling for regime change, Al-Qaeda being an obvious but extreme example of this (Islamist groups vary in their ideological and political outlook. Some chose violence others renounce it, they often disagree with each other. Al-Qaeda is not the main form of Islamism and is widely denounced by other Islamist groups). Sponsorship of these groups causes strains relations with the West, which Saudi Arabia needs to help act as a buffer against Iran. This concern is mirrored in Saudis actions in Syria, as despite claims of aiding the opposition, the rebels’ claim they have not received enough weapons from the Gulf and are desperately looking for them. Saudi Arabia is the Middle East’s best armed military, even beating Israel, thus the claim that Syrian opposition lacks weapons when being ‘sponsored’ by Saudi Arabia, reveals a lot about Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy goals in Syria. Both sides have vested interest in talks, the question is when will these talk begin and will they stop the Arab Spring?