- 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.”

In a direct jab at Mr. Assad’s regime, he said there are Syrians “who do not represent the majority of people [and] who work with Iran.”

A move by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, such as Qatar, to funnel weapons to the Syrian rebels would mark another major step in the Gulf’s ambitious transformation into the Middle East’s clearinghouse for bold gestures and well-funded influence.

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were the main Arab contingents in the NATO-led airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya. Regional mediation efforts included talks hosted by Qatar last month between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority on a reconciliation accord.

Iran’s Middle East network’

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, meanwhile, is discussing “union” plans that could mesh their defense and foreign policies - in a clear reply to Iran’s attempt at expanding its military presence in the Gulf.

The council has offered membership to the monarchies in Morocco and Jordan in a possible bid to divert some of the regional clout from the Arab League.

The Western-allied Gulf - the base for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and hundreds of American warplanes - also could figure prominently in any military attack plans on Iran’s nuclear sites.

No Gulf state has relations with Israel, but opening airspace for planes could be an option.

On Sunday, President Obama said he does not want war with Iran, but insisted that he would attack if it is the only alternative to stop Tehran’s development of a nuclear weapon.

He made the remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee a day before his White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose nation has not ruled out a unilateral attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The U.S. and its allies fear that Iran’s uranium enrichment eventually could lead to development of nuclear weapons. American officials have appealed for time to allow international sanctions to bite deeper into Iran’s economy.

Iran claims it seeks reactors only for energy and medical research.

It is unclear how the standoff with the West could shift if Iran also loses its axis with Mr. Assad.

It would, however, leave a “big hole in Iran’s Middle East network,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva.

“The U.S. could definitely be waiting to see how Syria plays out before making any decisions,” he said.

Iran has hedged on Syria as the crisis unfolded - asking for talks with the opposition, but standing behind Mr. Assad’s legitimacy to rule.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi denounced any “interference” of foreign powers in Syria that could “complicate the status quo,” Iranian state TV reported.

David Hartwell, senior Middle East analyst at the defense and intelligence group IHS Janes, said it appears that Saudi Arabia and Qatar eventually could break with Western partners that are still hesitant to arm the Syrian rebels.

“Riyadh and Doha … remain unlikely to share Western fears about worsening the situation in Syria,” Mr. Hartwell said. “Indeed, the deteriorating position the [Syrian rebels find themselves] in may provide Saudi Arabia and Qatar with even more justification for supplying them with weapons.”

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