The Saudi-Syria rift

Never in the modern history of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia have both countries experienced this level of improper public display exploiting the annoyance both have of each other’s policies. The harshest attack was published few days ago on al-Arabiya Web site (Saudi-owned) in which an unnamed Saudi official castigated the Syrian leadership and in particular Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Shara’a who, two days earlier, had his own cacophonous words berate the Saudis.

It all started when Syria was accused of killing Rafiq Hariri, a Lebanese-Saudi businessman close to the Saudi royal family, which sparked international outrage and led 1.5 million Lebanese to fashion the Cedar Revolution to confront Syria’s presence in Lebanon, and, with the help of the West, to drive Syria out of the country by passing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. Late in 2005, it looked as if the Assad regime in Syria was on the brink of collapse.

Then in early January 2006, and after a much-publicized visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Syria, President Bashir Assad slowly recovered. The Ahmadinejad visit was historic because it exposed the ethnic bearing Syria chose to adopt vs. the Arab bearing it boasted through its membership in the Arab League. As a country run by the Alawite minority split from the Muslim Shi’ite sect, Syria, through its rapprochement with Iran, sealed its fate against its majority Sunni Arab neighbors and opened an ethnic divide that looks like where the Middle East is headed.

Mr. Assad buttressed further his regime by visiting Russia next, late in January 2006, to shop for arms and a deal, which Russian President Vladimir Putin used for a bear hug that brought us back to the Cold War era. Both of those relations have been strengthened since with multiple arms purchases from Russia, including threatening, non-defensive missile technology, and multiple agreements with Iran that are slowly changing the face of Syria.

To stoke the fire further, in August 2006, a combative Mr. Assad, on the heels of Hezbollah’s presumed declaration of victory in its war with Israel, denounced Saudi and Egyptian leaders by referring to them as “half-men.” The derogatory comment was viewed by Saudi and Egyptian leadership as a vitriolic attack against two majority Sunni countries. To this day, this speech still resonates in Saudi ears and they have never forgiven Mr. Assad for his insults. Furthermore, the Saudis cannot feel vindicated unless Mr. Assad, who never personally apologized for uttering the infamous words (he usually sends his foreign minister to mend his gaffes), submits to their will by distancing himself from Iran, a policy which was frantically conceived to replace the regime-change echoes being heard at the time in Washington’s corridors of power.

The Arab countries finally realized the futility of that policy and have since been toying with the idea of regime change for Syria to the point that an adviser to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal proposed it in a TV interview following the latest public outbursts. This growing political tension between both countries is bound to complicate matters even further for all the other Arab League members and split them along lines of ethnic loyalties. In recent memory, Arab countries have always flaunted their unity through Pan-Arabism and nationalism.

The Arab League, founded in 1945, showboats Pan-Arabism in its own pact by claiming that its mission is to “draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.”

Syria’s recent alliance with Iran has exposed weaknesses in Pan-Arabism and provided a dimension most Arab countries lack the experience to manage, let alone control, as demonstrated by the war of words erupting today between Syria and Saudi Arabia. This Syrian slide into the Iranian orbit has also revealed the weakness of an Arab League unable to sustain its unity. But more importantly, it also exposed an even larger rift between countries desirous of seeing their religious affiliations protected from the specter of other rising ethnic threats. The more Syria helps al Qaeda in Iraq, the closer it wants to be to Iran.

Not all will be winners in this new era of ethnic loyalty, but, without a doubt, the losers will, once again, be all the liberal voices calling for calm, unity of purpose, and peaceful co-existence among all religions. At the end, two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both controlled by religious extremists, will face each other and everyone else will have to take sides. The latest Saudi-Syrian rift is the beginning of a new precarious era in the Middle East built along ethnic lines and religious affiliations.

Farid Ghadry is president of the Reform Party of Syria.

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