Over the last year or so, I’ve taken the bet that Saudi Arabia is pursuing a strategy of regime collapse in Syria. In practical terms, this means that Saudi Arabia won’t support a Syria peace process that achieves a measure of accommodation between the Ba’athist ruling party (with or without Assad) and the opposition, popular, overseas, or otherwise.
Saudi Arabia, in my view, is not interested in the humanitarian satisfactions of helping end the brutal civil war. Nor has it come around to the Obama administration’s increased wariness about the virtues of insurrection (especially when practiced by overmatched rebels who might be able to overthrow the regime with outside help but might not be able to run the country), given the post-intervention collapse of Libya into a failed state despite (or I guess maybe because of) the existence of sufficient oil reserves to fund a live-and-let-live pro-Western lifestyle.
No, I think Saudi Arabia has decided to play the long game, preferring instead the triumph of a largely Sunni insurrection that would drive the Ba’athists from power and install a new regime that is largely beholden to the GCC and fundamentally hostile to Iran. This would serve as a counterweight, threat and practitioner of destabilization against the Shi’ite-led and Iran-friendly government of Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The most recent harbinger of Saudi radicalism on the Syria issue may be its high-profile decision to reject the non-permanent UN Security Council seat that it had presumably yearned and lobbied for over a period of years. The Saudi snub was couched in terms of the UNSC’s inability to take meaningful action on the Palestinian, Middle East nuclear free zone, and Syrian issues.
The coordinated nature of the Saudi move—it followed Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal’s cancellation of Saudi Arabia’s scheduled speech to the General Assembly in early October—indicates that a Saudi hardline policy is not just the personal hobbyhorse of the Machiavellian Prince Bandar, whose determination to dethrone Assad is rather unambiguous if perhaps underreported in the press.
Today, Egypt and the GCC weighed in to praise Saudi Arabia’s “courage” in ditching the UNSC seat, a sign that a bigger game is afoot than simple pique at UNSC veto-holders Russia, China, and the US. I think the target of the Saudi snub is the faltering Syrian peace conference scheduled for Geneva in late November under the auspices of the UN and the special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. The KSA, it seems, would rather be outside the tent pissing in, than inside the tent pissing out.
It looks like the Saudis are digging in for a posture of intransigence on Syria—basically, stalling the peace process so that the jihadi groups can escalate their campaign of car bombs, assassination, and armed resistance to the point where the Assad regime might actually collapse or, failing that, remain a basket case.
As to why this is happening, I think a few forces are at work. First, the United States has marginalized itself in the eyes of Saudi Arabia thanks to its new-found moderation on Syria, its pursuit of engagement with Iran, and its Egypt policy. This has encouraged Saudi Arabia to cobble together its own security strategy. Second, absent an aggressive US policy on Iran and the likelihood that Israel’s unilateral attack-Iran rhetoric is mostly bluster, Syria offers Saudi Arabia the best venue to counter Iran’s regional influence.
It might be pointed out that Iran is a populous democracy, albeit of the mixed theocratic type, with a diversified economic base. In peacetime conditions, it has a good chance of outcompeting a sclerotic Wahabbist autocracy. So, for that matter, does Qatar, whose strategy of using the civil war to catapult Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood into power is anathema to Saudi Arabia.
Peaceful competition in the marketplace of ideas, in other words, is not a recipe for Saudi success. Keeping the bloody Syrian pot boiling—and raising the specter of the collapse of Shi’ite-led Iraq into civil war as collateral damage—is perhaps the Kingdom’s best option.
Third, maybe Saudi Arabia is riding the jihadi tiger and can’t get off—even if official government support for extremist factions (as opposed to genuine private Saudi enthusiasm) has been as anxious and equivocal as some think. If it supported a peace process in Syria, there are a lot of jihadis who would take it as a betrayal. The US apparently has grand plans for a purge of jihadis similar to the “Anbar Awakening” that expelled Al Qaeda from western Iraq.
But the Anbar operation probably succeeded because of the efficiency of the US JSOC assassination squads, not just the righteous indignation of the local sheiks. If a similar stunt were tried in Syria—but using proxies, the factionalized Free Syrian Army, and/or the Syrian army as a substitute for US military muscle against the jihadis—many would probably slip through the net and survive with the thought of anti-Saudi mayhem on their minds.
If and when the Geneva peace conference goes ahead, it will be interesting to see what Saudi-backed opposition groups participate, if the outcome is rejected as a useless exercise in UN-peace-mongering neutered by Russia and China (and the US) and if Saudi Arabia decides to throw gasoline on the fire in terms of open provision of arms and money to the insurrectionists, instead of just letting Syria burn.