If President Barack Obama has disappointed the Syrian opposition by seeking congressional approval for an attack on Syria, he did the same to America’s allies in the Middle East. It is true that Israel and Saudi Arabia have no love for each other, but they are both pressuring their mutual ally to attack the Assad regime. Their sights are not just set on Syria, but also on their common enemy Iran.
The Syria-Iran connection was clear in Israel’s response to the sudden decision by Obama to delay or possibly cancel an air strike against Syria. Israeli officials said that a seemingly lenient response to Assad’s chemical weapon attack might encourage Iran to go ahead and develop nuclear weapons. If that happens, said the Israelis, then they will attack Iran unilaterally because they can no longer trust Washington to do so.
Neither of the US allies disputed publicly with Obama. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country is “calm and confident”, while Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was content with renewing his call on the “the international community” to stop Assad’s violence in Syria.
Although Saudi Arabia is not as keen as Israel to attack Iran, it shares its concern that they may both have lost confidence in Washington to tackle what Riyadh regards as Tehran’s efforts to extend Iranian influence over the Arab world.
Obama reassured Netanyahu last year that he is “always ready to defend Israel”, while the prime minister is now reassuring Israelis that they can manage their own affairs without America’s hesitant protection in confronting Iran, which has called for the destruction of Israel but denies developing nuclear weapons. “The citizens of Israel are well-aware that we are ready for any potential scenario,” said Netanyahu, “and all Israeli citizens must know that our enemies have extremely strong reasons which stop them from testing our strength and our ability.”
This may not be reassuring to the US administration, which tried to dissuade Netanyahu from taking unilateral action against Iran, fuelling in the process the current chaos in the Middle East. Israel Army Radio was more obvious when it said, “If Obama was hesitant in the matter of Syria, there is no doubt that [the US] will be much more hesitant towards the issue of attacking Iran, a move that is expected to be more complex, making the possibility of Israel acting alone more likely.”
Furthermore, Israel can compare its own “red line” regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons and the one set out by Obama about Assad’s use of chemical weapons. America says that it has the evidence that the Syrian regime has used such weapons but the US has not made a move to do anything about it yet.
Saudi Arabia, which, like Israel, relies heavily on the US for arms, is engaged in a historic battle with Iran over regional influence. Riyadh is the main supporter of the Sunni opposition fighting Assad, who is a member of the Shia Alawite sect. The Saudi government believes that overthrowing the Syrian president will foil Iran’s ambitions not only in Syria but also in other Arab countries, including the Gulf states; it does not trust the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen or Iraq.
It should be remembered that leaked documents revealed Saudi King Abdullah’s desire to take military action against Iran; he told the US to “cut off the snake’s head” to end the nuclear threat posed by Tehran. The Saudi foreign minister’s disappointment at the postponement of America’s strike against Syria was evident at the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, where he said that talk “is no longer enough”.
Analyst Sami al-Faraj advises the Gulf Cooperation Council on security issues. He said that Riyadh and its allies in the GCC are at risk of coming out empty-handed from their latest endeavours to get US support for their campaign to rein-in Iran. Al-Faraj believes that US fervour for a strike has cooled and Congress will set conditions for it to take place.
Israel, meanwhile, does not share Saudi Arabia’s eagerness to support the Syrian opposition, despite its fears about Assad’s role as the link between Iran and Tel Aviv’s Palestinian and Lebanese enemies. The Zionist state fears the presence of extremist Islamists in the opposition ranks, some of whom are linked to Al-Qaeda; the government in Riyadh also wants to tackle Al-Qaeda, which describes the Saudi ruling family as a tool in the hands of the Americans.
International criticism of Damascus almost overshadows Saudi and Israeli support for a US air strike on Syria. In addition, the current Egyptian crisis has also seen them both putting pressure on Washington to back the Egyptian army against the Islamists, which flies in the face of most international opinion.
Israeli political commentators used terms such as “betrayal” and “a stab in the back by Uncle Sam” when Obama abandoned his former ally, Hosni Mubarak, during Egypt’s popular uprising in 2011. While some Western leaders expressed their concerns over the army’s overthrow of Morsi in July and the bloody security campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood ever since, Benjamin Netanyahu said that Obama’s scolding of the army leaders and America’s delayed delivery of four military aircraft to Egypt “astonished” Israel. He condemned the US President’s position.
Despite this, the matter remained under wraps after Netanyahu issued a “gagging order” on politicians and officials. Even so, the Israeli army left open its lines of communication with the Egyptian armed forces, including contact regarding attacks by extremists close to the borders with Gaza and Israel. The army was acting in accordance with the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel signed in 1979 under American patronage.
Strangely, Saudi Arabia was the most critical of Washington over its policies in Egypt. When some American officials threatened to stop aid to the new Egyptian government, Riyadh and its allies in the Gulf provided billions of dollars in aid and loans to Cairo. Saudi then challenged Washington and informed the administration that it would be compensating Egypt for any loss if the US dared to stop providing aid. “To anyone announcing or hinting at stopping aid to Egypt,” announced the Saudi foreign minister, “I say that the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its capabilities and people and will not hesitate to lend a helping hand to Egypt.
Israel also held direct talks with the White House and urged Obama not to hesitate in his support for the Egyptian army, and also said that the time has come to take action regarding Syria. Intercepts obtained by Israeli spies were passed to the US and used in its justification for an attack on Syria. Netanyahu ordered his ministers not to publicly criticise the president after his decision to defer the Syrian matter to Congress.
“We are in the midst of an ongoing event that is not over yet,” he told the Israeli cabinet on Sunday. “There are issues that are sensitive and delicate at the moment so there is no room here for individual comments.” He asked his colleagues to act in a “responsible” manner when it comes to “our ally”.
Israel hopes that Congress will give Obama the green light to launch a military strike against Assad but is cautious about putting pressure on members of the US legislature. In any case, Obama has said that the threats posed to Israel by Syria’s chemical weapons are among his justifications for a strike, as is the fear that Israel will strike Iran alone. Although it is unlikely that Israel would use its nuclear arsenal, any strike against Iran would have unpredictable consequences. Israel’s ex-military attaché in Washington, Gadi Shamni, commented, “At times, we [the US and Israel] were in the same book, and then on the same chapter, now we are on the same page. There is a great flow of intelligence information, perspectives and understanding.”
Having co-existed with Assad and his late father over more than 40 years, Israeli unease about the Syrian opposition fighters who have targeted the occupied Golan Heights occupied by Israel, has led to the Zionist state to take a stand against Assad. Netanyahu’s message is clear, insists Shamni: “There is a man who is supposedly controlling Syria and is using chemical weapons against civilians; this must be stopped.”
The same thing is being said in Riyadh. Abdullah Al-Askar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Shura Council, said that the US strike(s) should be aimed at ending Assad’s rule. He told Reuters that he was speaking personally, but added, “If the attack was merely a punishment to show that the international community will not tolerate chemical weapon attacks, Assad will remain in power and continue carrying out his bloody actions… the other scenario would be putting an end to his actions.”
Moreover, Gulf analyst Mustafa Alani, who has good relations with the Saudi officials, said that the Kingdom is also warning Washington that refraining from attacking al-Assad will benefit their mutual enemy, “Al-Qaeda”. He added, “Not taking action will lead to the enhancement of the position of the extremists.” Opposition frustration at the American delay, he explained, will drive fighters into the arms of the Islamic extremists. Riyadh shares this frustration. One American official said that Washington and Riyadh have “stable relations” but don’t always agree on issues; “even so, we have honest and frank discussions”. These have led Robert Jordan, US ambassador to Riyadh from 2001 to 2003, to say that the Saudis have been “extremely honest” in their belief that the opposition fighters can be trusted and need to be supported.
It remains to be seen where this relationship will lead the Middle East.
This commentary is a translation of the Arabic text which appeared in Al Quds Newspaper, 3 September, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.