By M K Bhadrakumar
October 1, 2013
The Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal used the meeting of the Friends of Syria ministerial forum meeting at New York on Friday to launch an attack on the US-Russian initiative on chemical weapons. He said the initiative should have been followed up with a UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII so as “to guarantee the Syrian regime’s commitment without any delay or procrastination”, and as things stand, the Syrian regime intends to take advantage of the initiative “to impose more killing and to torture its people.”
Faisal also warned against using the Geneva process “as a way to legitimize Assad regime.” Instead, he called for the intensification of political, economic and military support of the Syrian opposition in order to enable it to defend itself and change the balance of powers on the ground, which will push the political solution.”
Clearly, the Saudi Arabian regime is seething with anger over the US-Russian initiative on Syria’s chemical weapons as well as President Barack Obama’s overture to the Iranian leadership (WSJ). Saudi Arabia can be expected to step up the support for the rebel fighters in Syria and it may not care to do any hair splitting between “moderate” Islamists and extremist groups.
Conceivably, the newly-formed islamic Alliance in Syria may have tacit Saudi backing. Turkey is known to keep underhand dealings with extremist groups who act as counterweight to Syrian Kurds.
All these cross currents come out vividly in the sharp criticism of Obama’s policy featured in the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat today, here, under the byline of Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, who is also the general manager of Al-Arabiya television — “Obama would be committing an irreparable error if he lets Iranians fool him with Rouhani’s smiles and sweet words…”
It seems the Saudis have been taken by surprise. They probably didn’t expect a direct contact between Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani or the great thaw to begin in right earnest so soon.
The Saudis have formidable clout with the Washington establishment and they can be expected to pull all stops to derail Obama’s strategy to begin direct talks with the Iranian leadership. But will it work?
Obama knows how to ward off such pressure by adopting a stance of strategic ambivalence, which by now has become his trade mark. More than Saudi annoyance, he needs to factor in that Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu is also hopping mad.
But then, Obama has acted in the US’ long term interests, sensing that an optimal strategy towards the new Middle East will continue to elude Washington so long as the US-Iranian standoff continues.
Besides, as for the Saudis, as a regime which has invested $1.6 trillion in US bonds, it will surely know which side of the bread is buttered.
On the other hand, when it comes to Syria, Obama could well turn a blind eye to what the Saudis are up to. The US has no interests at stake in Syria. Syria has been already weakened to such an extent that Israel’s security has been strengthened. And if the Saudi-backed Salafist fighters in Syria take on the Russians in the coming months, the US may well consider it’s payback time for Edward Snowden and may do nothing to stop it. Indeed, the Saudis recruited hundreds of these Islamist fighters operating in Syria from Russia’s North Caucasus region.
What eludes us in all this is Iran’s strategy. To my mind, Iran doesn’t view its normalization of relations with the US through the prism of its Saudi ties. It has a much bigger vision of what it wants out of an integration with the West. Iran will use every opportunity to build up its national strength and aspire to play a role on the world stage. Iran has never been lacking in ambition. At any rate, Iran will not be satisfied comparing itself with Saudi Arabia whose social formation it considers disdainfully as by far inferior to its own civilisation.
Having said that, Saudi Arabia’s real worry lies elsewhere: What happens if the US dumps Saudi Arabia from its pristine status as America’s key ally in the Middle East? It is this status that protects the archaic Saudi regime from being overthrown.
The Asharq Al-Awsat article cited above has some interesting passages on the Saudi worries regarding the way Obama’s mind is working with regard to developments in Egypt (and the democratization of the Middle East). Paradoxically, when it comes to Arab Spring, Obama and the Iranian leadership happen to find themselves largely on the same page — on the “right side of history”.