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Saudi strategy in Syria: dangerous times

Dr. Naser al-Tamimi

Published: Updated:

The outbreak of the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad gave Saudi Arabia a strategic opportunity to strike at Iran’s regional influence. However, recent indications point toward a dramatic escalation in the Saudi role against Assad.

Why is Riyadh in such a hurry to topple the Syrian regime? There are many explanations, including the growing influence of al-Qaeda, the increasing likelihood of the conflict spreading to neighboring countries, and the kingdom’s concerns that a victory for Assad would boost Iran’s regional influence.

However, a striking theory is that Riyadh is now convinced that neither the United States nor Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear program, so a Saudi “pre-emptive strike” in Syria and beyond is logical and urgent. The most important element of this strategy is to deprive Iran of its “bargaining chips,” which may increase dangerously if it develops nuclear weapons. This explanation seems convincing, but carries significant risks.

Strengthening al-Qaeda

A U.S. strike will probably not lead to a decisive victory for the Syrian “moderate” opposition. On the contrary, it may strengthen al-Qaeda. “The collapse of Assad isn’t likely to lead to a democratic regime respecting human rights, but to an Islamist regime with links to Al-Qaeda,” said George Friedman, chairman of global intelligence company Stratfor.

A U.S. strike will probably not lead to a decisive victory for the Syrian “moderate” opposition

Naser al-Tamimi

The conflict may also intensify and lead to the emergence of a Syrian Hezbollah, as well as spill over into neighboring countries, particularly Jordan, with its open borders and influx of refugees.

The growing influence of al-Qaeda in Syria could push Shiite communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the region closer to Iran, due to the feeling of an existential threat. The escalation of the sectarian conflict could spread to Saudi Arabia, and increase the extremist tendencies among the kingdom’s Shiite minority.

Recent satellites images reveal just how serious Riyadh is in dealing with the Iranian threat. IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review photographs show that the Saudis have a new ballistic missile facility near Riyadh, stocked with powerful Chinese-made surface-to-surface missiles with a range up to 2,000 miles, which are targeted at Israel and Iran.

From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, it is a dangerous game, but other possibilities are even more dangerous.

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Dr. Naser Al-Tamimi is a UK-based Middle East analyst and author of the book “China-Saudi Arabia Relations, 1990-2012: Marriage of Convenience or Strategic Alliance?” (Routledge: 2013). His particular research interest is in energy politics and the political economy of the Gulf, as well as relations between the Middle East and Asia. The writer can be reached on Twitter: @ nasertamimi

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