Earlier this week, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir had the following message for Tehran:
“We wish that Iran would change its policies and stop meddling in the affairs of other countries in the region, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. We will make sure that we confront Iran’s actions and shall use all our political, economic and military powers to defend our territory and people.”
In short, Riyadh and its allies in Doha and the UAE are uneasy about the fact that the P5+1 nuclear deal is set to effectively remove Iran from the pariah state list just as Tehran is expanding its regional influence via its Shiite militias in Iraq, the ground operation in Syria, and through the Houthis in Yemen.
Thanks to the fact that Tehran has more of an arm’s length relationship with the Houthis than it does with Hezbollah and its proxy armies in Iraq, the Saudis have been able to effectively counter anti-Hadi forces in Yemen without risking a direct conflict with Iran, but make no mistake, Sana’a is not the prize here. Yemen is a side show. The real fight is for the political future of Syria and for control of Iraq once the US finally packs up and leaves for good. Iran is winning on both of those fronts.
Over the last several weeks, we and others have suggested that one should not simply expect Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha to go gently into that good night in Syria after years of providing support for the various Sunni extremist groups fighting to destabilize the regime. There’s just too much at stake.
As noted on Tuesday, Assad’s ouster would have removed a key Iranian ally and cut off Tehran from Hezbollah. Not only would that outcome pave the way for deals like the Qatar-Turkey natural gas line, it would also cement Sunni control over the region on the way to dissuading Tehran at a time when the lifting of crippling economic sanctions is set to allow the Iranians to shed the pariah state label and return to the international stage not only in terms of energy exports, but in terms of diplomacy as well. Just about the last thing Riyadh wants to see ahead of Iran’s resurgence, is a powergrab on the doorstep of the Arabian peninsula.
Thanks to Washington’s schizophrenic foreign policy, there’s no effective way to counter Iran in Iraq but as Mustafa Alani, the Dubai-based director of National Security and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center told Bloomberg earlier this week, “The regional powers can give the Russians limited time to see if their intervention can lead to a political settlement — if not, there is going to be a proxy war.”
That’s not entirely accurate. There’s already a proxy war and the dangerous thing about it is that thanks to the fact that Iran is now overtly orchestrating the ground operation, one side of the “SAA vs. rebels” proxy label has been removed. Now it’s “Iran-Russia vs. rebels” which means we’re just one degree of separation away from a direct confrontation between NATO’s regional allies in Riyadh and Doha and the Russia-Iran “nexus.” Here’s Bloomberg with more on the Saudi’s predicament:
Powerful Saudi clerics are calling for a response to the Russian move, even though the kingdom is already bogged down in another war in Yemen. Analysts say the Saudi government will probably speed up the flow of cash and weapons to its allies in the opposition fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who’s also supported by Saudi Arabia’s main rival, Iran.
While the Saudis may seek to direct their aid to “moderate forces” in Syria, “the definition of this word is subject to much debate,” said Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based political analyst. Sending arms “is dangerous in the medium term because of how easily weapons can fall into the wrong hands,” he said.
And let’s not kid ourselves, there are no “wrong hands” as far as Riyadh and Doha are concerned. Sure, they’d rather not have ISIS running around inside their borders blowing up mosques but then again, those bombings simply provide more political cover for justifying an air campaign in Syria. Back to Bloomberg:
Extremist groups already hold sway over large parts of the country. The Saudis joined U.S.-led operations against Islamic State last year, and since then jihadist attacks in the kingdom have increased, many of them targeting minority Shiite Muslims in the oil-rich eastern province. Meanwhile, Assad accuses the Saudis and other Gulf states of arming rebel groups with ties to al-Qaeda.
Some Saudi thinkers advocate direct military engagement in Syria, just as the kingdom has done in Yemen. Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is one of them.
“The Saudis are going to be forced to lead a coalition of nations in an air campaign against the remnants of Syrian forces, Hezbollah and Iranian fighters to facilitate the collapse of the Assad regime and assist the entry of rebel forces into Damascus,” Obaid wrote in an opinion piece published by CNN on Oct. 4.
And while some still see that outcome as far fetched not only because the Saudis are stretched thin thanks to falling crude prices and the war in Yemen, but because it would be an extraordinarily dangerous escalation, it looks as though Qatar is leaning in a similar direction. Here’s Sputnik:
Qatar who has been a major sponsor of jihadist groups fighting in Syria for years, now is actively considering a direct military intervention in the country, according to its officials.
Throughout Syria’s bloody civil war, the government of Qatar has been an active supporter of anti-government militants, providing arms and financial backing to so called “rebels.” Many of these, like the al-Nusra Front, were directly linked to al-Qaeda. That strategy has, of course, done little to put a dent in terrorist organizations in the region.
But as Russia enters its fourth week of anti-terror airstrikes, Qatar has indicated that it may launch a military campaign of its own.
“Anything that protects the Syrian people and Syria from partition, we will not spare any effort to carry it out with our Saudi and Turkish brothers, no matter what this is,” Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah told CNN on Wednesday, when asked if he supported Saudi Arabia’s position of not ruling out a military option.
“If a military intervention will protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the regime, we will do it,” he added, according to Qatar’s state news agency QNA.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was fast to warn the Middle Eastern monarchy that such a move would be a disastrous mistake with serious consequences.
“If Qatar carries out its threat to militarily intervene in Syria, then we will consider this a direct aggression,” he said, according to al-Mayadeen television. “Our response will be very harsh.”
Let’s just be clear. If Saudi Arabia and Qatar start bombing Iranian forces from the airspace near Russia’s base at Latakia, this will spiral out of control.
Iran simply wouldn’t stand for it and if you think for a second that Moscow is going to let Saudi Arabia fly around in Western Syria and bomb the Iranians, you’ll be in for a big surprise. Of course the first time a Russian jet shoots down a Saudi warplane over Syria, Washington will have no choice but to go to war.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the absurdity in what’s being suggested here. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are essentially saying that they may be willing to go to war with Russia and Iran on behalf of al-Qaeda if it means facilitating Assad’s ouster. The Western world’s conception of “good guys”/ “bad guys” has officially been turned on its head.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public approval rating has reached a record 89.9 percent since he ordered his military to begin air strikes in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, according to a state-run polling center.