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Syria endgame forces Saudi Arabia’s hand

November 7, 2017 at 8:33 pm

King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (L) shakes hands with former Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri (R) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 6 November 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

The Syrian conflict is rapidly coming to a conclusion, as demonstrated by the government’s retaking of the strategic Deir Ez-Zor province. The Syrian government has pressed home its advantage by wresting control of the border town of Abu Kamal away from Daesh.

The retaking of Abu Kamal is critically important at many levels, not least because it points to passive acquiescence by the United States to the eastward march of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies. Previously the US had appeared to be committed to denying Syria the opportunity to retake the eastern part of the country.

The retaking of the most strategic part of the border with Iraq is also important in a regional context, especially as Iraq has just retaken the border town of Al-Qaim from Daesh. The Shia-led militias on the Iraqi side of the border (organised as Popular Mobilisation Units) are the ideological compatriots of the militias allied to the SAA on the Syrian side of the border. Hence, the operations on both sides of the border are being correctly interpreted as a significant gain for Iran.

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It is this sudden surge – and the apparent inability of the US to stop it – that has rattled Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Syrian War is concluding on Iran’s terms and we should expect a higher level of regional instability as Israel and Saudi Arabia struggle to come to terms with this reality.

Lebanon: the next regional flashpoint?

The resignation of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri whilst on an unscheduled visit to Saudi Arabia caught observers by surprise, prompting widespread speculation that Hariri’s hand had been forced by his Saudi hosts. The resignation was all the more surprising in view of growing cohesion in Lebanese politics, as demonstrated by Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s warning to Israel that “all the Lebanese” will resist the next Israel invasion, just two days before Hariri’s resignation.

US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump get off plane during their arrival at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump get off plane during their arrival at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Royal Council / Anadolu Agency]

The least speculative conclusion to draw at this stage is that the Saudis moved to rupture growing Lebanese unity which would inevitably benefit Hezbollah and by extension Iran. The prospect of large-scale Israeli aggression against Lebanon cannot be ruled out, as like Saudi Arabia, Israel has effectively lost in Syria.

As Syria begins to recover from the six-year long proxy conflict, it is demonstrating growing confidence in combatting Israeli aggression and constant violations of its sovereignty. In the latest incident Syrian air defences reportedly targeted Israeli war planes over Lebanon, before they were attacked by Israeli jets.

In view of the volatility of the area – with the occupied Golan Heights and the occupied Shebaa Farms sitting on powder kegs – even proportionate responses by the Syrians and Hezbollah to Israeli violations may prompt a disproportionate Israeli counter-response, which may in turn touch off a much wider conflict.

While Saudi Arabia has much to gain from an Israeli assault on Lebanon, it is not necessarily counting on it. Despite threatening destruction on Lebanon in the next war, there is an expectation that cooler heads will prevail in Tel Aviv, at least for the foreseeable future. Israel risks a major setback (possibly on a bigger scale than the Summer 2006 War) by starting a war at a time when its Syrian and Lebanese enemies enjoy unprecedented strategic momentum.

The analytical community appears to be more or less united in anticipating bold moves by Saudi Arabia in Lebanon. After all, Saudi Arabia wields considerable influence in Lebanon and could cause major pain for the Lebanese economy if it cuts back on investments or potentially by going even further by imposing a Qatar-style blockade on Lebanon.

Saudi’s empty hand

The apparently forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister coincided with a massive purge inside Saudi Arabia as Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) attempts to wipe out internal opposition to his authority. MBS’ increasingly bold moves, both domestically and regionally, appear to be motivated in large measure by his confidence in US President Donald Trump’s strong support.

Unconfirmed reports by Saudi opposition sources suggest that MBS “bribed” Trump to the tune of $1 billion. At any rate, US and Saudi positions on Iran have rarely been so aligned as they are currently, as demonstrated by Trump’s war-like anti-Iranian rhetoric.

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It is unlikely that the Iranians will sit idly by as MBS pursues an ill-thought-out aggressive regional policy. Indeed, the Iranians may have had a hand in the launching of a mid-range ballistic missile at Riyadh’s King Khaled airport by the Houthi movement in Yemen. Lending credence to this hypothesis, a conservative Tehran-based daily close to Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei, suggested that “Dubai” could be the next target of the Houthis’ missiles.

The implication is clear: if MBS is intent on escalation then Iran has plenty of options to hit back where it really hurts. But the Saudis must grapple with difficult strategic and political problems as they pursue escalation. For a start, absent strong and consistent US support, Saudi Arabia stands little chance of arresting Iran’s strategic momentum, let alone containing the Islamic Republic. Moreover, in the event of a rapid escalation, Saudi Arabia cannot sustain a military confrontation with Iran unless the US steps in to save the day.

In the final analysis, MBS’ gamble on Lebanon, similar to his ill-advised move against Qatar earlier in the year, will achieve little save for touching off yet more regional instability.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.