As it has become crystal-clear that Syrian President Bashar Assad is not and likely never was a “reformer,” the Obama administration has come under heavy, valid criticism for having believed/pretended/hoped otherwise, especially when it, say, sent U.S. ambassador Robert Ford back. Clearly it took the administration far too long to do what it did today: demand that Assad leave. Yet it’s a stretch to say, as one Jewish Republican activist did in reference to Saudi Arabia’s having recalled its own ambassador: “When Saudi Arabia has more moral clarity than the U.S., it’s a sad day.” What Saudi Arabia is up to has very little to do with moral clarity.
Tablet Magazine contributor Bruce Riedel, a former intelligence analyst and regional expert, argues that Saudi Arabia senses opportunity to reassert Sunni dominance against Shiite Iran and its Shiite proxies in that corner of the region, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. (Syria has long been ruled by Alawites, members of an eccentric Shiite sect.) Assad’s regime, Riedel notes, is a crucial connector between Hezbollah, the group that essentially controls Lebanon, and its sponsor in Tehran; likely orchestrated the 2005 assassination of the pro-Saudi Lebanese prime minister; and has (foolishly) been seen “wrapping itself in the flag of Hezbollah,” to quote one Saudi paper, during its brutal crackdown on popular protests. In other words, this is all part of King Abdullah’s plan to cut off the head of the snake. Reports Riedel:
Riyadh worries that Assad will be replaced by chaos, but it has now come to the conclusion the risk is worth the price. If the Assad regime is destroyed, so too will Syrian support for Hezbollah be destroyed. If a new regime emerges that reflects the will of Syria’s majority-Sunni population, it can become a base for destabilizing the Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut. The power balance in the Levant could be tilted decisively against Hezbollah and undercut Iranian regional influence.
This is why, say, you have four Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, enthusiastically backing the referral of Syria to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
The weakening of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah hegemon would also, of course, represent good news for Israel, which went to war with Hezbollah in 2006, is no friend of Syria’s, and considers Iran its prime national security threat. Indeed, for more than two months Israel has repudiated the notion that it prefers the cold stability of the current regime and has explicitly hoped for Assad’s ouster (“Allied with Iran, Mr. Assad has helped supply 55,000 rockets to Hezbollah and 10,000 to Hamas, very likely established a clandestine nuclear arms program and profoundly destabilized the region,” Ambassador Michael Oren has argued. “The violence he has unleashed on his own people demonstrating for freedoms confirms Israel’s fears that the devil we know in Syria is worse than the devil we don’t.”) It’s all another reminder that Israel’s interests are frequently aligned with its Sunni neighbors’ against Iran and its proxies.
Engagement With Syria: Time For Reassessment? [Washington Jewish Week]
Saudi Arabia Moves to Take Down Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah [The National Interest]
Israel Prefers the End of the Assad Regime to Its Continuance [WSJ]
Arab Countries Back Emergency U.N. Session on Syria [JPost]
Related: Storm Over Syria [NYRB]
Earlier: Reform Is Not a Watchword in This Administration
U.S. Re-Upping Syrian Ambassador
Iran Is Better Armed Than We Thought
Cut Off the Head of the Snake!
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.