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Giorgio Cafiero Headshot

Saudi Arabia's Dark Role in the Syria Conflict

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Saudi Arabia responded to uprisings in Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia in a manner that clearly established the Saudi government as a counter-revolutionary actor in the Arab Awakening. However, by providing vast financial aid and weapons to anti-Assad militants, it has sided with forces promoting regime change. Saudi Arabia's role in the Syria conflict is driven by several regional and domestic objectives -- from destroying the Syria-Iran alliance to distracting the Saudi population from domestic problems to a desire to ensure that the Afghanistan experience of the 1980s is not replicated in the Levant.

Under Hafez Assad's leadership (1970-2000), a balanced alliance between Iran and Saudi Arabia was a pillar of Syrian foreign policy, given his desire to counter Israel's strength and spread Syrian influence throughout the region. The U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, the 2006 Lebanon War, and the proposed Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline deepened Syrian-Iranian ties, and prompted a deterioration of Syrian-Saudi relations. When Bashar Assad called King Abdullah a "half man" for Riyadh's inaction during the 2006 war, tension between the two heads of state evolved into personal hatred.

As the Syrian regime is Iran's closest Arab state ally, the Saudis view regime change in Syria as an opportunity to deal a major blow to Iran, its Shia allies in Iraq and Lebanon, and Shia elements in the Kingdom opposed to Wahhabi rule. Given that 74 percent of Syrians practice Sunni Islam, the Saudi government would like to use its religious authority and economic resources to acquire influence over a post-Assad order -- at Tehran and Hezbollah's expense.

Saudi clerics have relied on the Middle East's explosive sectarian divisions to motivate Saudi youth to travel to Syria and wage jihad against the Shia/Alawite political order, but as many Syrians (both pro and anti-Assad) are secularists who practice a moderate form of Islam, the widespread rejection of Wahhabism in Syria undermines Riyadh's soft-power there. Despite providing jihadists with weaponry and money, King Abdullah fears blowback from the "holy war" against the Assad regime.

Saudi Arabia financed and armed mujahedeen fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and shortly after the war many jihadists turned their guns on the Saudi government. Riyadh continues to view Al Qaeda and its affiliates as a threat to the ruling family's Islamic legitimacy. Additionally, the Turkish/Qatari-backed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is not supported by the House of Saud for a host of reasons, rooted in historical tension between the Brotherhood and the Kingdom. By the same token, although the Saudi regime seeks the overthrow of Assad, it will not back any faction in Syria simply by virtue of a common political objective.

To diminish the prospect of specific Islamist extremists gaining power in Syria, the King has sought to regulate the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia into Syria. While recent developments indicate that Riyadh-backed rebels have acquired an upper-hand over Ankara and Doha's proxies, the Syrian opposition's evolving and disparate nature suggests that this may prove temporary. Given that the Saudi government has no means or inclination to intervene militarily in Syria, Riyadh's capacity to ensure that Saudi money ends up in the hands of intended recipients is limited, particularly given that wealthy Saudis have provided funding to the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra.

If extremist organizations ultimately overthrow the Ba'athist order, there is every reason to expect Salafist militants to bring their battle to Jordan, in addition to Lebanon and Iraq. As a close Saudi ally and key linchpin of the U.S./Israel/Saudi Arabia axis, the future of the Hashemite kingdom is a central consideration for the Saudi authorities.

Assad's regime has proven surprisingly resilient. Earlier this week, the regime scored a decisive victory over the once rebel-held southwestern city of Qusayr (a vital corridor to Lebanon of immense strategic value), which underscored the Syrian military's strength and the influence of Hezbollah inside Syria. This development should moderate the expectations of Assad's enemies that the regime will soon relinquish power. The Ba'athist propaganda machine has benefited from the Wahhabi states -- Saudi Arabia and Qatar - which have aggressively backed Syrian and non-Syrian Islamist rebels alike. By stoking fears among Syria's religious minorities and secular Sunnis about their potential slaughter if the Assad regime falls to extremists, the regime has consolidated support from religious minorities, and many secular Sunnis.

As Israel remains concerned about the implications of spillover from Syria -- which could potentially include the transfer of weapons of mass destruction into the hands of Hezbollah -- we expect Israel to continue to engage in targeted strikes on Syrian targets as deemed necessary. The attacks offer Assad the opportunity to continue playing a nationalist card by invoking the perennial Arab-Israeli conflict, which naturally elicits powerful emotions among Syrians. But Syrians have greater concerns on their minds today -- such as survival.

While the Saudis are delighted to see Iran's top ally facing a potentially existential threat, Riyadh would be wise to recognize that Iran's loss might not necessarily advance the Saudis' longer term interests in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's dream would be for the Syrian conflict to evolve into a post-Saleh-like reality in Yemen, with a new pro-Riyadh leadership emerging. Their nightmare, and that of many others in the region, is that it turns into a Taliban-like Afghanistan. At this juncture, the latter appears more likely.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington, D.C.