- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Around a gold-draped hall in Saudi Arabia, Gulf envoys listened to their host denounce the Syrian regime as an enemy of its people and the region.

What they really heard were fresh salvos in the Arab Spring’s wider war: Saudi leaders and their Gulf partners hoping to deal crippling blows to Iran’s footholds in the Middle East.

On multiple fronts, the Arab upheavals present opportunities for the Gulf states to bolster their influence, consolidate power and possibly leave regional rival Iran without its critical alliances that flow through Damascus.

“Nearly everywhere you look in the Middle East now, Iran is somehow in the picture,” said Sami Alfaraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “And where you have Iran, that means its rivalry with Saudi Arabia is also there.”

Saudi Arabia already plays a white knight role as protector of the fellow Sunni monarchy in neighboring Bahrain, where a Shiite-led uprising is perceived by Gulf leaders as emboldened by Iran.

Meanwhile, Gulf states have pledged aid and other help to the Palestinian group Hamas to nudge it from Iran’s orbit.

But Syria represents a much bigger prize.

Shiite crescent

A collapse of President Bashar Assad’s rule likely would end Iran’s cozy ties with Syria and potentially redraw the Middle East’s pathways of influence.

Instead of the so-called Shiite crescent - from Iran through Iraq and onto Mr. Assad’s regime led by Shiite offshoot Alawites - a new corridor of allies could be forged from Saudi Arabia, through Jordan and into Syria.

It also would choke off aid channels to Tehran’s main anti-Israel faction, Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could be forced to work more closely with other, more moderate Lebanese political groups.

“The regime is insisting on imposing itself by force on the Syrian people,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in a rare televised news conference Sunday after meetings with Gulf Arab counterparts in Riyadh.

He gave no direct comment on growing Gulf proposals to help arm Syrian rebels, but noted that international cease-fire efforts have “failed to stop the massacres” after nearly a year of bloodshed, including intense shelling in an opposition stronghold in the city of Homs.

The United Nations recently put the death toll for a year of violence in Syria at 7,500, but activist groups say the toll has surpassed 8,000.

“If the Syrian people want to defend themselves, is there something greater than the right to defend oneself and human rights?” he said. “The regime is not wanted by the people.”

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