If you are confused or baffled by Saudi Arabia's foreign policy moves over the past month or so, you are hardly alone. It appears the Saudis themselves don't know quite what to make of the various situations in which they find themselves.
The kingdom's stated objectives are well known: to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions, put a halt to what they see as Iranian troublemaking around the region, and forge a political union among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. None of those goals is within reach under present circumstances - Oman publicly rejected the GCC political union proposal and said it would leave the group if it were accepted - and it is difficult to perceive how Saudi Arabia's recent tactical moves are going to bring them any closer. At the same time, through intemperate rhetoric and pointless gestures such as rejecting a seat on the UN Security Council that they had long sought, they risk undermining their longstanding security partnership with the United States, the only country strong enough to protect the al-Saud rulers from potential predators around them.
"It's an ad hoc, shoot from the hip policy that has no strategic vision," one well-connected analyst observed the other day.
Syria is the biggest and most immediate problem, but hardly the only one. Riyadh's firm refusal to do business with the al-Maliki government in Iraq has had the effect of making Iraq more dependent on Iran rather than less - the very outcome to which the Saudis say they object. A strong, prosperous Iraq could again be the buffer between Saudi Arabia and Iran that it was under Saddam Hussein, but the Saudis are doing nothing to help Iraq rebuild. They have left that field to Iran.
In another seeming contradiction, Saudi Arabia has been a shrill critic of the interim nuclear agreement between the West and Iran. But at the recent GCC summit conference, the Saudis signed off on a statement from the group endorsing that deal. "The Supreme Council welcomed the interim agreement which was signed by the P 5 +1 with Iran on November 24, 2013 in Geneva," the official communique from that meeting said, "as a preliminary step towards a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear program that would put an end to concerns on the international and regional level about this program, and enhance the region's security and stability..." That is pretty much the rationale expressed by the United States and the other members of the negotiating group, a rationale the Saudis have rejected.
In Syria, the Saudis have put themselves in an extremely delicate position. They are all in on the ouster of Assad, and yet after three years of conflict the Syrian leader appears to be gaining strength against the fragmented forces of the rebellion.
Riyadh wants to engineer Assad's departure, mostly because of his alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, without delivering Syria into the hands of Islamic extremists and jihadists who would impose strict Islamic law on the country and then turn their attention to their neighbors. That is a delicate balance that may not be achievable by remote control from Riyadh.
"It seems that any group, however extreme in its Islamism, is an acceptable party for Saudi support, be it private or public, as long as it does not refer itself as an al-Qaeda offshoot," observed Jean Francois Seznec, a scholar with wide knowledge of Gulf affairs. In an article written for the Norwegian foreign ministry, Seznec said that the Islamist forces Saudi Arabia is supporting may not be affiliated with al-Qaeda but still "promote a rabid anti-Shi'a and anti-Christian ideology, turning the rest of the world against them and by association against the moderate opposition, and thereby limiting the Saudis' ability to unite the opposition."
It may be possible that the groups, backed by enough money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and private contributors, can forge themselves into a coherent rebel force that would decisively turn the tide against Assad and then form an inclusive government in Damascus. But given that Assad has his own wealthy supporter, Iran, that seems to be a long shot. Saudi Arabia's real problem, as Seznec noted, is that despite the billions it has spent on weapons acquisition over decades, it lacks the military power to do anything on its own in Syria. The Kingdom has no force-projection capability, and thus must rely on proxies with dubious credentials.
In a recent interview in TIME, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seemed to relish taunting Saudi Arabia about the dangerous game it is playing in Syria. "We are satisfied, totally satisfied, convinced that there is no military solution in Syria and that there is a need to find a political solution in Syria," he said. "If you want to prevent a void, the types of consequences that we are talking about, I mean if you want to avoid extremism in this region, if you want to prevent a Syria becoming a breeding ground for extremists who will use Syria basically as a staging ground to attack other countries - be it Lebanon, be it Iraq, be it Jordan, Saudi Arabia, even Turkey - these countries are going to be susceptible to a wave of extremism that will find its origins in Syria and the continuation of this tragedy in Syria can only provide the best breeding ground for extremists who use this basically as a justification, as a recruiting climate in order to wage the same type of activity in other parts of this region." He had a point.
An article in the current issue of Masarat, a journal published by the King Faisal Research Center in Riyadh, said the unwillingness of the U.S. and other western nations to take the field against Assad has left Saudi Arabia with no choice but to adopt more assertive policies and take on wider responsibility for regional stability.
"The Kingdom and its regional allies will increase their support to the Syrian rebels and prevent the collapse of collateral nations like Lebanon and Jordan," the article said. It called for the creation of a regional security alliance - led, of course, by Saudi Arabia. "It is absolutely vital that a Saudi-led regional project succeed in Syria. The only way the Arab world can make progress is through a collective security framework initially made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the GCC partner nations." (Note the omission of Iraq from that wish list.)
The article did not mention that those "GCC partner nations" have never been willing to enter any collective security arrangement that would be dominated by the Saudis, or that Egypt, which has its hands full at home, is in no position to take on new commitments elsewhere. And even if those proposed partners signed on, how long would it take them to put together an operation that could save Syria?
It appears that the Masarat article reflects official thinking because Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf Bin Abdulaziz, a grandson of the founding king who is the ambassador to Britain, said much the same thing in a column published by the New York Times.
"We believe that many of the West's policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East. This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by," the column said.
The west might cut deals with Assad and with the Iranians, the ambassador wrote, but deals with odious and dangerous regimes such as those are strategically dangerous and morally unacceptable. Because of its wealth and its position in Islam, the ambassador said, Saudi Arabia has "enormous responsibilities" throughout the region. "We will act to fulfill these responsibilities, with or without the support of our Western partners."
Negotiations aimed at stabilizing Syria are scheduled to begin under United
Nations auspices on Jan. 22. If they fail to halt the bloodshed, which seems a
safe bet, the rebels will expect Saudi Arabia to deliver on its promise. As
Americans like to say, good luck with that.
Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than three decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored six books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. - Saudi relations.
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