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The Battle for Syria

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The Saudi-Syria-Lebanon Tangle

May 23rd 2013

Free Syrian Army fighters

The Saudi drumbeat that questioned the Assad family's legitimacy, Syria's royalty, can be dated from 2006. Then, Saudi-sponsored newspapers began a stinging criticism of Syria in response to the role its Lebanese allies played during their recent conflict with Israel.  Specifically, Saudi Arabia chose to criticize Syrian support for Hezbollah--the Shiite movement supported by Iran, which had come to dominate southern Lebanon--and its leader Hassan Nasrallah.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alwaite sect and leader of a secular polity anathema to the Saudi Wahhabis, responded that Arabs--clearly including senior members of the Saudi royal family opposing Hezbollah, and were only "half-men".

It was a mortal insult.  The war of words that followed appeared to stimulate ever more dangerous events.  While Syria moved closer to Iran, Saudi Arabia sought to create a Sunni militia in Lebanon to counter Hezbollah. In Syria itself, the government media responded with claims that Saudi funds were being used to destabilize the Assad regime. 

In 2008 it was reported that in the aftermath of the Hezbollah victory in the battle for Beirut:

"The Saudis started playing the dangerous game of turning a blind eye to jihadis wanting to wage war on Syria. While Saudi Arabia's official policy remained critical of Syria, a certain branch in the Saudi royal family still harbored ambitions to topple the Syrian government altogether and replace it with pro-Saudi opposition figures like former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam. (Sami Moubayed, "Syria plays hardball with the Saudis," 8 October 2008, Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.)

It was soon clear to nearly everyone--France being first in line--that the Saudis faced a difficult task in attacking Syria through Lebanon given the latter's fissiparous political tendencies. Nonetheless, a Beirut-Riyadh alliance existed thanks to the personal and financial bond that tied Saad Hariri, the parliamentary majority leader, to the House of Saud.

As for the U.S. State Department, as the Bush administration closed out its second term, Foggy Bottom seemed uninterested in regime change in Syria. Its bet on Abdul Halim Khaddam had failed following Hezbollah's clear victory over the Saudi-trained and funded March 14 forces in the battle for Beirut. In effect, Syria and its ally Iran had been the victors over Saudi Arabia, and tangentially, the United States. Ironically, as the State Department chose a sort of benign neutrality in its relations with Syria, it was thanks in large part to Saudi funding that Lebanon's March 14 political movement (named in remembrance of the assassination of popular Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005) was able to create a powerful coalition of forces opposed to Hezbollah.

In 2008, Foggy Bottom was able to reverse its policy on a dime. In a change of strategy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Syrian Foreign Minister to discuss various issues including a Syria-Israel peace agreement. There was also talk that the United States would lift sanctions that had been imposed beginning with the Syria Accountability Act of 2004. (Sanctions were not lifted either then or later.)

During the early Obama administration, the thaw that began in the final year of the Bush administration was hastened by a number of official and private visits. In fact, the Syria-United States rapprochement continued to grow until the "Arab Spring" of 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt scattered the carefully played pieces across the Muslim World's chessboard.

In 2008, an observer noted: "The Syrians believe...that the Saudis are furious at Syria's repeated diplomatic successes. Eager for vengeance, they are now financing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon to strike at both Hezbollah and Syria..." (Ibid.)  The sectarian violence that then spread through northern Lebanon led Assad to locate thousands of troops on its Lebanon border to block what was called an "influx" of jihadi fighters to Syria. And there they remained.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Saudi funding assisted the March 14 movement to evolve into a strong coalition of political forces whose major raison d'etre was to oppose Hezbollah hegemony in south Lebanon and parts of Beirut. In March 2011, with the Middle East and the Sahil in an uproar, the March 14 and Hezbollah came close to armed conflict over a Hezbollah attack on a telecommunications ministry facility in Beirut. Hezbollah accused the March 14 movement of initiating a coup against the government, and March 14 responded that it had been Hezbollah itself that "turned its arms against the Lebanese during the May 7, 2008, events and later carried out a "coup" against Caretaker Premier Saad Hariri's government in January [2011]." ("March 14, Hizballah Rattle Sabres," Naharnet, 28 May 2011.)

Coincidentally, the Beirut war of words erupted just as the G8 countries announced that they would propose U.N. Security Council action against Syria if it did not halt the violent repression of its people. Syria was also warned against using its Hezbollah ally to turn southern Lebanon into a new war zone.

Since that event, the March 14 and Hezbollah have remained at sword's point in Lebanon as the war in Syria spread and casualties mounted. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have now joined the Syrian forces in the war to ensure Assad's survival. Like Assad, Hezbollah leaders understand they are also in a fight for survival. Hezbollah is threatened with the loss of a traditional safe haven in Syria, and by Israel, which has left no doubt it will oppose the introduction of new weaponry in southern Lebanon. Should Assad fall, it is quite possible that the March 14 movement will feel strong enough to make an effort to reunite the country.

For the moment, it appears that since 2008 the Saudi funds expended and directed to (1) its cold war with Syria, (2) the effort to influence political events in Lebanon, and (3) the elimination of the Iranian presence in the Levant have had their desired effect. The survival of Iran's ally, the Alawite and secular regime in Syria, is now under threat as is the future of Hezbollah in Lebanon. To use a chess metaphor, on the Middle East chessboard the Saudi king is well defended while the Syrian queen is under attack.

The history of Saudi moves to arm a Lebanese (and foreign) jihadist force in counterpoise to the Hezbollah, and how that force has contributed to the disintegration of the Syrian state, is a saga that this author hopes will someday be told.

J. MIllard Burr writes for the Economic Warfare Institute.


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