Saudi limbo and the future of the Levant

Saudi limbo and the future of the Levant

Recent developments in the Middle East have been playing out like an accelerated cartoon scene since the alleged August 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.  Within two months,  the Syrian regime went from a pariah to a partner of the international community in chemical weapons disarmament while its detratctor, Saudi Arabia, went from a newly appointed patron of the anti-Assad coalition to total isolation, having failed to dictate its regional agenda on Obama and the United States.  To add insult to injury, the US showed overture toward Iran’s willigness to reach an agreement on its nuclear program with a historic phone call from Obama to Iran’s president , and a meeting agenda to discuss the Iranain proposal at the level of foreign ministers.

In the wake of these events, Saudi Arabia reacted strongly by successively excusing itself from speaking before the league of nations and then refusing a 2-year rotating seat at the United Nations Security Council, while its foe, Syrian president Bashar el-Assad, was appearing daily on major news channels worldwide.

It is during one of these appearances, on the Arabic channel Al Mayadeen on October 21, 2013, two months after the alleged chemical attacks, that Assad spelled out Saudi policy in Syria as one which executes Washington’s orders.  Assad could not ignore the recent divergence between Saudis and the US on Syria because while the US took a clear step back by agreeing on the Russian promoted UN resolution to halt threat of bombing in exchange for Syria’s destruction of its chemical arsenal, Saudis were not only voicing frustration, but threatening to go it alone on Syria.  Why then did Assad treat Saudi Policy in Syria as a mere execution of US orders?  A simple explanation could be that the interview being in Arabic, Assad was addressing an Arab audience - including Saudis -  that could view the US link as damaging to Saudis authorities.  A recent poll indicated decline for support to Saudi policies in the Arab world where Saudis have historically intervened.  Given Arabs historical suspicion of the US, making this link does not help Saudi image among Arab citizens.  Another explanation could be that Assad was specifically addressing Saudi paid foreign fighters in Syria telling them that they are fighting for a US led agenda.  This potentially can increase suspicions and infighting, which are rife among rebels in Syria.  A third explanation could be that Assad was sending a signal to Saudis that obeying US has not done them any good and that should Iran repare its relations with the US, all is not lost for a Saudi come back in the Levant.  This is because Saudi power is not monolithic and it hasn’t always been as close to US policies when it comes to the Levant.  One should only remember how Saudis supported a Syrian led solution in Lebanon after the civil war, through the Taef agreements, and probably convinced their US ally of this, while Syria was not exactly the kind of country that the US considered friendly, even at the time.

The Saudi sphere of influence can be divided in different and competing zones when it comes to their narrow interests in the region.  There is the Gulf pole that is often mentioned, Egypt, which has been a traditional ally except for the brief Muslim Brotherhood presidency, and the Levant.  These different and competing zones have collapsed into one when Saudis started pursuing a strong and narrow sectarian agenda after the Iraq war.  But the Levant, and to a certain extent, Iraq, have been resisting such an agenda.  Lebanon, despite 15 years of civil war which saw the collapse of the state, complicated agreements entrenching sectarian politics after the end of the civil war, and the danger zone in which the country found itself recently with the Syria crisis, is still miraculously holding against the spectre of a full fledged sectarian war. Moreover,  the divisions among Lebanese Christians have complicated the Saudi sectarian equation for the country, giving an edge to Shias, rather then Sunnis.  In Syria, where the sectarian agenda is the most forcefully enforced through hordes of foreign fighters, a central state, army, and other institutions, as well as a pro-Assad population hailing from all sects, wary of the sectarian agenda, have all contributed to keep the country together, after nearly three years of war.

The resistance to the sectarian Saudi agenda in the Levant might  soon force a change of heart among Saudi rulers because if the agenda fails - and there are indications it will fail - it will be the end of Saudi influence in the region.  It will also, in return, represent a threat to Saudi rulers from disenfranchised and bitter jihadis. This is what Iran’s foreign minister meant when he, in his first televised interview with Press TV, without naming Saudis, warned that extremism might end up knocking at the door of those who nurture it. 

Having put all its eggs in the same basket by pursuing an agenda linking all its interests and spheres of influence in one political sectarian gamble, Saudi Arabia finds itself today near defeat, thanks mainly to Syria’s resilience and to Iran’s new leadership willingness to end its isolation.  The only event that may reverse defeat is a change of guard in the Saudi internal power scene, as it happened in Qatar, a retreat to a more pragmatic, less suicidal, foreign policy.  While this is unlikely to happen soon, given the structure of this absolute monarchy, it is still a possibility that a rapidly changing political scene will bring in its wake crises and unexpected developments.  A recent pro-Saudi op-ed in the Washington Post is a signal of things to come.  Saudi doctrine will change, we are told, from being protected to protecting itself.  Clearly, all the US has to offer is protection in the form of military bases and this protection will not go away because it is tied to US interests.   But what protecting itself means for Saudi Arabia ?  It means developing, for the first time, the means for a foreign policy independant from the US.  This independance will not happen in the Gulf where peace between Iran and the US and Gulf kingdoms’ rivalries will severely restrict Saudi role.  Any independance for Saudis from US foreign policy will come from their role in Egypt and the Levant where Saudis still command great influence among local politicians, where Israel is commonly loathed and where the Resistance is part of the culture of every citizen.  This is why Saudis mentioned Palestine as an example of a dysfunctional UN.  If Saudis really feel that decades of  following US orders have brought them nothing in matters of influence on the wider Middle East agenda, they may still reverse course on their sectarian agenda and focus instead on supporting the Resistance as a way of regaining initiative and influence in the region, if only they were thinking strategically, and not merely reacting to their misfortunes.  This can potentially have a positive effect on Saudi internal Shia turmoil.  As unlikely as it may appear, this scenario is plausible especially with an Iran turned inward to develop its economy after years of sanctions and an Iranian political class preoccupied mainly by its survival, not by regional hegemony even if this desire and their patronage of the Resistance have served them well in the past.  Saudi support for the Resistance can come in many ways, one of them could be through Lebanese internal politics where they can immediately support a consensus government and stop blocking Hezbollah from playing the political role the Lebanese want it to play.   But for this to happen, a tectonic shift is needed in Saudi internal politics.  One wonders if the US, confident of Saudi subservience, will permit this shift.  In Georges Clooney’s Syriana, a heir to the Saudi throne is eliminated by the US  because of its independance.  That’s the historic conundrum in which many US client countries find themselves in, unable to reform and change course.  Saudi Arabia is a perfect example of acute US dependance.

Assad’s allusion that Saudis were following US orders in their Syrian agenda might have been a challenge to Saudis to build their own.  It is clearly a phase of great instability in the region and as each country will have to redefine its priorities, the Resistance in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon will have to redefine its priorities and external as well as internal alliances.  Some will endure and some will change.  And unless there is a just peace in Palestine and between Israel and the Arab countries that border it,  the Levant will stay the playground for those who seek influence either by challenging the Resistance or by supporting it, without ever being able to get rid of it.  This is the choice facing Saudis today.  Their diminishing inlfuence to shape events in the Gulf will force them to count on the Levant where they can either continue to challenge the Resistance on its turf and face total defeat or change course and gain some leverage[1] and independance.  But one thing is sure, nobody can dictate its agenda for the long term on the Resistance because it is not only a military, but a cultural phenomenon, born out of injustice, much like the Occupy movements.  The arc of History in the ME is bending away from Israel, thanks to the axis of Resistance.  Saudis should seize the occasion, reconcile with the idea of an Iranian leadership in the region, and join the resistance!

[1] In the beginning of the twentieth century,  after the Hashemite Hijazi branch of Saudis were driven out from power by Al-Saud, they established kingdoms in Iraq and the Levant.

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