Syria, war without exit

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is at the heart of Syria's destructive stalemate. This proxy conflict, with Baghdad providing crucial help to Tehran, highlights the scale of the blowback from the United States's war in Iraq.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 March 2013

On 16 December 1998, warplanes of the United States and United Kingdom launched a four-day air assault on sites across Iraq. The targets of "Desert Fox" were command-and-control centres, air defences and places suspected of being linked to the country's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme.

The declared purpose of the operation was to support United Nations Security Council decisions, and specifically to respond to Iraqi interference with the work of the UN weapons inspectors that had conducted regular missions in Iraq since the war of 1991. There were also unconfirmed reports that an internal coup attempt against Saddam Hussein's regime was being planned, and it was hoped that Desert Fox would encourage this. Some of the more cynical politicdians in Washington, however, saw it as a diversion by Bill Clinton's administration in the wake of the Monica Lewinski affair.

The question of motive aside, a little-noticed aspect of the 1998 raids is highly relevant to understanding what is happening today in Syria. When planning for the Iraq operation, the US airforce (USAF) were preparing to rely on access to a powerful contingent of F-15E Strike Eagle bombers based at the Prince Sultan air-base south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital.

But after US crews had spent months in training for a Desert Fox-style attack, the Saudi authorities refused to allow the planes to conduct raids on Iraq from Saudi territory. If this was surprising enough to the Pentagon, even more so is that Riyadh denied USAF permission to move the planes to bases in neighbouring countries for the same purpose. The resulting consternation in Washington was among several factors that raised serious doubts over the “reliability” of the Saudis as regional allies. The fact that this was only seven years after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - with its perceived threat to neighbouring Saudi Arabia - the Saudi decision was very hard for the US to understand.

It would have been easier to grasp if seen in the context of the Saudis' long-term suspicion of post-revolutionary Iran. Before its invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam's Iraq had fought the Iranians from 1980-88 in a devastating war which, inconclusive as it was, at least protected Saudi Arabia and other western Gulf states from the spread of the Iranian revolution. The House of Saud, moreover, perceived the Iranian threat to lie not just from the perceived expansionist aims of the Shi'a republic but from the large and potentially pro-Iranian Shi'a minority in the oil-rich eastern provinces of the kingdom. Now, to have “crusader” warplanes taking off from Saudi soil to bomb a Sunni regime was far too risky.

The balance

The relevance to the current horrific war in Syria is that much of what is now happening relates to this long-term Saudi-Iranian contest, and this proxy element of the war is escalating rapidly. The period since September 2012 has seen a marked upsurge in support for the anti-Assad rebels, with arms airlifted from many sources (not least Croatia) to airfields in Turkey and Jordan. As many as 160 flights by “military-style” aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan have reportedly been involved in the operation, with the CIA also contributing (see CJ Chivers & Eric Schmitt, “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With C.I.A. Aid”, New York Times, 24 March 2013).

The efforts by France and Britain to persuade their European Union partners to lift the EU arms embargo on Syria have made little progress, making this "unofficial" arms conduit funded by Gulf states all the more important. In turn this raises a particular problem for the United States: for whereas the Saudis are unconcerned if Islamist elements within the Syrian rebel forces receive some of these arms, the CIA has been trying hard to ensure that arms go only to the more secular units. For the Americans (and French and British) there are “good” and “bad” rebels, with the (often highly effective) Islamist paramilitiaries in the latter camp; the Saudis and Qataris, by contrast, will back anyone who fights Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Even amid an increased flow of arms, this tension is reflected in two difficulties affecting the anti-Assad campaign. The first is disunity within the rebel forces, exemplified in the resignation on 24 March of the rebels' political leader Moaz al-Khatib (see Liz Sly, “Syrian Opposition in Disarray as its Leader Resigns", Washington Post, 24 March 2013). The Arab League's recognition of the rebel movement as the legitimate voice of Syria can be seen as an aspect of this ongoing division.

The second is the build-up of support for Assad from Iran, and the crucial role of Iraq in this process. Tehran is as determined to keep the Damascus regime in power as Saudi Arabia is  to see the end of Assad (which would greatly damage Iran's regional influence). A steady flow of weapons and men from Tehran through to government-controlled airfields in Syria is being maintained, and is made easier by the overflight rights granted to Iran by the friendly Shi'a-dominated Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki.

Indeed the closeness of Iran and Iraq is, for Riyadh, the biggest single downside of the fall of Saddam Hussein, whose hardline anti-Iran stance and control of Iraq's Shi'a majority were welcomed in Riyadh. It is painful too for Washington, whose loss of standing in the region is reflected in its failure to influence Baghdad. The new secretary of state John Kerry has urged al-Maliki to stop the overflight agreement, though this is unlikely to have an effect (see Michael R Gordon & Tim Arango, “Kerry warns Iraq on being conduit for arms to Syria”, New York Times, 25 March 2013)

The prospect

The United States's weakness vis-a-vis Baghdad is very far from what was expected when its forces terminated the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 (see Ernesto Londoño, “A decade after Iraq invasion, America's voice in Baghdad has gone from a boom to a whimper”, Washington Post, 23 March 2013). To add to its troubles, many Islamist rebels within Syria gained experience fighting the Americans in Iraq, which gives them a particular techical prowess in the new war. US diplomacy towards Syria is twice handicapped: by its lack of influence with the Iraqis and thus inability to minimise cross-border support for Iran, and by the rise of capable paramilitaries who honed their skills in the Iraq war. It is an extraordinary double blowback (see "Iraq, a war foretold", 22 March 2013).

The result of all this is a balance of destructive forces which is unlikely to change anytime soon. More probable is that at some point the opposing factions will fight almost to a standstill with further great loss of life. Either the regime in Damascus will fall or the rebels will be restricted to parts of the country.

In this deadlocked situation, any kind of negotiated settlement will have to come primarily from within; but it will prove impossible unless external actors are prepared to work together. Neither the United States nor Russia can make progress alone - the two states would have to work together. At present there is no sign of that. This bitter and hugely damaging war may still have months, and quite possibly years, to run.

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