The Saudi frustration with the American administration’s policy in Syria and Iran reached fever pitch with Riyadh’s decision to refuse a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Saudi Arabia's list of complaints against its American ally has been growing for some time now. Washington’s decision not to bomb Syria and its ongoing rapprochement with Tehran has pushed the Saudis to go public, with their protest putting the Kingdom's position on a par with the Israelis.
Prior to Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud’s decision to break his silence and openly criticize the Obama administration's current approach to the Syrian crisis, Saudi Pan-Arab news media, including the daily Asharq Al-Awsat, adopted an unusually harsh anti-American tone in their coverage of Middle East events. The widely circulated daily newspaper has been critical of what they see as Obama’s meek response to Assad’s August 21 chemical weapon attack against rebels outside Damascus and his containment policy toward the new Iranian president. Some of the gripes leveled in the Arab press echoe Jewish media warnings regarding Iran's “grand plans” in the Middle East.
Israel and the Gulf Arab Sheikhdoms consider Iran a clear and present danger that must be confronted in Syria and stopped from developing nuclear technology. For Tel Aviv and Riyadh, Iran’s newly elected president Hassan Rouhani's charm offensive at the UN was a ploy to loosen international sanctions against his country. Arab observers note that the real power broker in Iran remains the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei who is known for his support for an aggressive foreign policy in the Persian Gulf and the development of nuclear weapons. Iran’s effort to acquire nuclear technology is only one phase in the mullahs’ expansive project to extend and reinforce Persian influence in the region and intimidate rivals, especially Saudi Arabia.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “designed mission” involves a proxy control over political events in Syria by supporting Assad, in Lebanon through the powerful Shia militia of Hezbollah, and in Iraq with an alliance of the Shia dominated government of Prime Minster Al-Nouri. Such an aggressive Iranian posture is a direct challenge to the Saudis and Israelis.
As Saudi spy chief, Prince Bandar is mindful of the ramifications of an Iranian victory in Syria and the influence and prestige of the Kingdom around the Islamic world. By not bombing Assad, the United States has handed Iran a win, boosting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards militia influence in Syria and Lebanon while weakening moderate Sunnis.
Summarizing Arab Gulf diplomats’ anger with Washington, a Saudi journalist described, in an article for Al-Majalla magazine, the success of the Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control as a win for Moscow and a sign of waning American influence in the region. Noting that Russia persists in arming Assad’s forces, Arab observers believe Putin brokered the deal to help disarm Syria’s chemical weapons as a ploy to buy time for Iran and its allies to defeat the Syrian opposition.
American reluctance to arm Syrian rebels has damaged the Saudi-US friendship as well. Arab diplomats label Washington’s cautious approach to send arms to moderate opposition groups in Syria a gift to Iran and Hezbollah. In fact, US fears that arms would wind up in the hands of the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra materialized partly due to the absence of American influence on the ground amongst rebel groups.
The divide between the two allies over Iran and Syria has opened the door for fundamentalist Arab donors to support jihadist movements fighting the Assad regime. American and western intelligence organizations rely on Bandar and Saudi spy agencies to keep tabs on Al Qaeda affiliates in the region. It remains unclear if this diplomatic crisis will last long enough to hamper the close and historic relations between the intelligence communities and further reduce the declining American influence over some of the secular Syrian rebel organizations.
While the US/Saudi rift continues in public, Syrian civilians endure their misery in a world seemingly indifferent to their plight. Today, Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies are consolidated in their positions and have resumed indiscriminate shelling of civilians while extremist Sunni groups namely “Jabhat al-Nusra” and the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” have solidified their presence in Northern Syria. These developments should be of concern to Sunni Arabs and Israelis. Arab Gulf countries are especially wary of Rouhani‘s efforts to re-brand Iranian foreign policy into a softer and gentler diplomacy in dealing with Israel and the west. The Saudis view an American/Iranian improved relationship as a threat to their internal security. Riyadh is concerned about a potential renewal of Shia minorities’ protests across the Arabian Peninsula and Bahrain, once Washington opens direct dialogue with Tehran. Furthermore, Sunnis view the easing of American and European imposed sanctions on Iran as added impetus for Iranian Revolutionary Guard to resurrect their support of Shia groups in the region.
When Prince Bandar, a close friend of the United States and a trusted adviser to the Saudi King, issues threats, Washington must listen. The feeling among the ruling families in the Gulf is of an American betrayal. As one Arab observer asked:” Did Obama sell the Arabs to Iran?” Iranian support of Houtis in Yemen, the Shia in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi, as well as Tehrans’ dispute with United Arab Emirates over three Islands in the Strait of Hormuz are all reminders of what is at stake for the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Obama’s overture to Rouhani is costing the United States the goodwill of some old pro-Washington friends in the Arab world; and inadvertently helping the ultraconservative Wahabis’ in their campaign to send money and fighters to extremists in Syria and Iraq. American/Saudi relations may not risk serious alteration or long term damage. Yet, Saudi frustration and their diminishing cooperation with the Americans in the Syria crisis will have ramifications on the west’s influence and military reach among the rebels. The clear beneficiaries from this spat are the Iranians and Al Qaeda, while the losers are the suffering Syrian civilians.