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Dr. Josef Olmert

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Saudi Arabia and Syria -- Iran Is in the Background

Posted: 02/27/2012 9:02 am

Sheikh Awad Al-Qarni is a prominent and well-respected Saudi cleric. Alongside his well-documented Islamic scholarship he is a fan of offering prize money towards causes dear to him. In the past, he offered $100,000 to the kidnapper and murderer of an Israeli soldier. These days, the benevolent Sheikh offers the same amount of money to the good Muslim who will assassinate Bashar Assad of Syria. Doing that, so the cleric declared, is an obligation more important even than killing an Israeli soldier.

Surely, a collective sigh of relief is heard in Israel, and the opposite in Syria, as the security apparatus around the besieged Syrian dictator must have paid attention to the forms of death that the Sheikh wishes their boss in Damascus. Hanging is the most benign of them...

It is not clear, whether the Sheikh coordinated his new plan with the rulers of his country, but he may still have been inspired by what seems to be a hardening Saudi attitude towards Bashar Assad. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faysal, a veteran of many diplomatic conferences about the Middle East, left in disgust, the much-celebrated and little-achieving conference of the "Friends of Syria" in Tunis, initiated by the U.S., and attended by 70 states. The Saudi minister lamented the fact that the conferees referred to the "humanitarian aspect" of the Syrian tragedy, instead of discussing practical ways to help the rebels, including foreign military intervention. Clearly, the Saudis, always so cautious in dealing with Arab regional issues, have a reason why they want decisive action now in order to bring the Assad regime down.

They did not always show their profound resentment towards the Alawite dictatorship in Damascus. In fact, the Wahabbis of Riyad and Mecca flirted with both Hafiz and Bashar Assad when it suited their regional goals. This was not part of any newly-discovered empathy towards the Alawite religion, that much we should never expect from the pious Saudis. This was all about realpolitik, as the Alawites seemed to be entrenched in power in a country that has a major role to play in Middle East politics. So, King Abdallah swallowed his pride and sense of obvious disgust towards the Alawite regime, and paid Bashar Assad a visit, lasting just hours, in July of 2009. Less than a year later, the Saudi monarch, not known to be a frequent flyer, due to his age and illnesses, came to Beirut to confer with the host Lebanese President and Bashar Assad, in the aftermath of the UN report about the assassination of former Lebanese P.M. Rafiq Hariri. This tripartite summit was a diplomatic coup to the Syrian dictator, who was on top of the world, enjoying the Saudi recognition of Syria's special role in Lebanese affairs, happening just five years after the not so dignified Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon during the "Cedar Revolution."

Little did Bashar Assad and King Abdallah know then, that the Sunni population of Syria would rebel against the Alawite yoke just a year later. At the beginning of the uprising, the Saudis adopted their usual model of a reserved attitude, sitting on the fence and watching where the wind blows. But then a change occurred. The Saudis realized that the uprising has the potential of bringing the regime down, and much more so, with that happening, inflicting a devastating blow to Iran's policy in the Middle East. Here is the key to understanding Saudi motivation regarding Syria. Yes, instinctive sympathy towards the plight of the oppressed Syrian Sunnis is on display, and with it the built-in disdain towards the Alawites. But then, there is the Saudi regional interest and their view of the neighbor from the other side of the straits of Hormuz, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The exposed WikiLeaks documents portrayed a terrified Saudi regime, haunted by the crippling fear from the Ayatollahs, and in particular, their nuclear program. This fear is, of course, common to all the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], led by Saudi-Arabia. According to unverified reports, this fear has led the Saudis to support, behind close doors, the possibility of Israeli/and or American military strike against Iran. It is not something that the Saudis will say in public, nor will they admit any connection between the Iran issue and the fate of the Assad regime.

However, this connection is here and now. Saudi Arabia wants Assad down and as quickly as possible because they may believe that with that happening, the military option against Iran can become more attractive, if not to the Obama administration, then to Israel. It is well known that the Israeli calculus about Iran takes for granted the possibility of Syrian and Hezbollah counter-strikes against Israel if it attacks Iran. It seems that for the Saudis much more is at stake here than the $100,000 offered by the distinguished Sheikh Al-Qarni to the murderer of Bashar Assad...