Iranian support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is producing a violent backlash against Tehran’s interests in the Middle East and fueling a proxy war with Saudi Arabia that threatens to further destabilize the region.
The situation is a source of growing concern among U.S. intelligence officials and regional analysts who say tension between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-led monarchy and Iran’s Shiite-controlled theocracy has become a dangerous subtext of Syria’s civil war and poses an existential threat to regional neighbors — particularly Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia and Iran “view their influence in the Middle East region as zero-sum, and the situation in Syria is just another venue in which they are playing out their long-standing power struggle,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.
Most of the action is unfolding inside Syria, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commanders are providing strategic advice to the Syrian security forces that have spent nearly three years battling predominantly Sunni Muslim opposition rebels.
While U.S. officials suspect that Iran is using civilian aircraft to smuggle weapons through Iraqi airspace for delivery to the Assad regime, Lebanon has found itself increasingly entangled in the conflict because Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militants have joined the war on the side of Mr. Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam.
Lifeline for Assad
Iran’s support of Mr. Assad is now so deep that some analysts believe it to be key to his government’s survival.
“Iranian support [for Mr. Assad] has changed the narrative in Syria from ‘it is not clear when Bashar Assad will go, but it is clear he will be defeated’ to ‘Bashar Assad is actually hanging around and it is not clear that he can be militarily defeated,’” said Simon Henderson, director of the Persian Gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Hezbollah’s support, in particular, has turned the tide in Mr. Assad’s favor in key battles, including one last summer for the town of Qusair, which is on a key supply route near the Lebanese border for opposition rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian government.
In hindsight, some have read the developments in Qusair as a turning point for the spread of Syria’s war into Lebanon since allies of the opposition responded to Hezbollah’s meddling in the city by declaring Iranian interests inside Lebanon to be fair game.
The result has been bloody. A series of explosions killed 23 people in an area just outside the Iranian Embassy in the Lebanese capital of Beirut in November. On Feb. 19, a twin suicide bombing outside an Iranian cultural center in the city killed six people.
More than 200 people were wounded in both attacks — responsibility for which was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al Qaeda-linked group based in Lebanon. The group has warned on jihadist websites that it plans to attack Iranian interests as long as Hezbollah supports Mr. Assad.
Inside the proxy war
Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s effort to dominate the Middle East as a direct threat to the region’s security and Sunni Muslims — and is troubled by the scale of Tehran’s efforts to preserve Mr. Assad’s grip on power. Riyadh’s concerns have been heightened by a diplomatic thaw between Tehran and the West, including the U.S., that has been spotlighted in negotiations over Iran’s long-disputed nuclear program.
Tehran, meanwhile, has had a longstanding relationship with Mr. Assad and shows no signs of cutting back its involvement in Syria, which puts it at odds with the diplomatic goals of the Obama administration and its allies.
The West’s engagement with Iran has “made Riyadh even more concerned about the rise of Iranian and Shia power from Lebanon, to Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and even Yemen,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who heads the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Paul Pillar, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said Saudi Arabia’s biggest concern is “largely a sectarian one, with focus now on a fight between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria.”
Evidence of this concern can be found in Saudi Arabia’s $3 billion grant to Lebanon to buy weapons from France. The grant, offered in December, is the single largest ever to be given to the Lebanese army.
Lebanon’s army is no match for Hezbollah, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist group in 1997. The Saudi grant is seen by analysts as an attempt to achieve two objectives: blunt Hezbollah’s power and check Iran’s regional ambitions.
Saudi Arabia “would like Iran and Hezbollah defeated in Lebanon and Syria but have no practical plan to get there other than to get Washington to do it,” said Mr. Riedel.
Mending the U.S.-Saudi rift
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is one of the casualties of the war in Syria.
Ties between Washington and Riyadh have become strained over the Obama administration’s reluctance to arm Syrian rebels and President Obama’s decision not to respond with airstrikes to a chemical weapons attack on the opposition near Damascus in August.
Frustrated by the U.S. policy on Syria, Saudi Arabia began supporting the rebels and wants to provide them with shoulder-fired missiles. Washington, however, views the rebels favored by Saudi Arabia as hard-line jihadists.
“The working understanding is that the Saudis have been supporting some pretty hard-line jihadists, with Qatar supporting even harder-line jihadists,” said Mr. Henderson. “The issue for the U.S. is to make sure that those being supported only have ambitions in terms of getting rid of Bashar Assad rather than greater worldwide jihadi ambitions.”
Mr. Obama plans to visit Saudi Arabia at the end of March in an effort to mend the bilateral relationship.
Saudi Arabia, too, appears to be taking steps in that direction. Alarmed by the large number of Saudis who have joined the war in Syria and the prospect that hardened jihadists will import violence to his kingdom, Saudi King Abdullah this month issued a decree banning Saudis from traveling abroad to join jihadist movements and imposed prison terms of up to 20 years for violating the decree.
Saudis are senior commanders in the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate that the State Department designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.
Majid al-Majid, a Saudi citizen and commander of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, was arrested by Lebanese authorities in January. He later died of apparent kidney failure.
The Saudis don’t control Jabhat al-Nusra or Abdullah Azzam Brigades and are “increasingly worried that they are out of control and will bring civil war to Lebanon as well as Syria,” Mr. Riedel said.
King Abdullah also has appointed Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to lead the kingdom’s Syria policy, replacing Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former ambassador to the U.S. whose support for hard-line rebels caused considerable unease in Washington.
Prince Mohammed has a favorable image in Washington, where he built trust by cooperating with U.S. officials in the fight against al Qaeda in Yemen. The prince is aware of the danger posed by Saudi militants, one of whom came close to assassinating him in 2009.
Prince Mohammed visited Washington this month to prepare the ground for Mr. Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
In Riyadh, Mr. Obama likely will tell his Saudi interlocutors not to escalate the war in Syria by, for example, arming the rebels, said Mr. Pillar, a CIA veteran and former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.
“He probably also will argue that increasing the capabilities of radical Sunni groups in the Syria fight will increase the chance of them causing trouble elsewhere,” said Mr. Pillar. “Today it is Lebanon; tomorrow it might be somewhere else.”