It is clear that Saudi Arabia has dissociated itself and washed its hands of the current leadership of the Syrian regime. It is also clear that such dissociation is irreversible and that Riyadh is not addressing this matter in a manner that is commensurate with its position and power. With all the talk about Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the Syrian opposition by providing arms, the continuing superiority of the Syrian regime on the ground and in the air indicates that most of what is being said is simply an exaggeration by the regime and its allies.
In fact, Saudi Arabia’s position on the Syrian issue is not different from that of Egypt. The most prominent difference between the position of Riyadh and Cairo as well as Ankara is that the Kingdom considers Iran to be a major factor of the problem in Syria, while Egypt and Turkey share the opposite view.
The question is: Is Saudi Arabia for the survival of the regime without Bashar Assad? While this is a simple and straightforward question, the answer is not. Before answering this question, one must understand the meaning of the phrase “survival of the regime?”
Who would remain in this regime, and who would be likely to leave? On what basis will this be done? What is the position of the opposition on this, and where would they be positioned in such a regime? If such would play out, how would the regional alliances be affected? How would the relationship between Syria and Lebanon be affected by such a resolution? What about Hezbollah and its huge arsenal of weapons? How would Russia and Iran respond to such a proposal? Lastly, what about the opinions of Turkey and Egypt on this matter, which cannot be ignored?
If is often said that the change in the position of Saudi Arabia on the Syrian regime occurred because they failed to put an end to the Syrian alliance with Iran. This view contradicts the experience that defined Saudi-Syrian relations; rather, the idea of this alliance is not solely the root of the problem that caused relations to slip. Historically, the first to develop the foundations of the Syrian-Iranian alliance was President Hafez Assad, but his relationship with Riyadh remained steady and strong over 30 years. This relationship passed big and tough tests: Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, and the Iran-Iraq war, during which Saudi Arabia sided with Iraq and Syria sided with Iran. Then came the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982, and the tanker war in the Gulf.
Add to that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm, followed by the peace process in Madrid in 1991, with all its pitfalls. With all these momentous and significant events, Saudi-Syrian relations remained intact, even leading to the Saudi-Syrian coordination and cooperation in Lebanon to be strongly established. We cannot say that there were no differences between Riyadh and Damascus in their approach to these momentous events. There were differences in both visions and interests, and it is not unexpected that such different visions and contradicting interests could and would amount to a clash. The most prominent example of serious differences in the position of both countries was during the Iran-Iraq war, during which Saudi Arabia and Syria were on opposite sides.
In Arab politics at the time, such a difference in position could have resulted in a blow to the relations between the two countries; however, despite Saudi Arabia and Syria being on difference sides, the relations between two countries were able to endure.
This indicates that the leadership of the two countries at that point considered the relationship between both countries to be of strategic importance, and thus, required maintenance for the sake of each country’s strategic goals. This is exactly what seems to be different in recent years, and as a result, a shift in the relationship between Riyadh and Damascus has occurred.
All the mentioned momentous events also indicate that relations between Damascus and Tehran did not become a stumbling block to Saudi relations with Syria throughout the era of Assad, the father — especially between the start of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the death of Hafez Assad in 2000.
Technically, this means that it could have been possible for Assad Jr. to keep the same relationship with Iran after he inherited power from his father without his relationship with Saudi Arabia being affected. However, this did not actually occur; rather, the opposite occurred, as relations began to deteriorate gradually after Bashar Assad came to power. So what has changed in Damascus after Hafez Assad? Is Assad Jr. more reluctant to the resistance than his father? How did his relations with Riyadh worsen?
Many forget, or pretend to forget, that during the Riyadh summit in 1976, Saudi Arabia covered the Syrian troops in their movement to enter Lebanon. Along with King Khaled bin Abdulaziz, this summit included the participation of President Anwar Sadat, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad, President Hafiz Assad, President Elias Sharkis and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — all figures who have departed from this world.
Of course, we should not forget King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz, who was then crown prince and who played an active role before and after the summit in support of King Khaled.
After the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia and Syria engaged in the Taif agreement in 1989, an agreement that brought to an end the civil war. The requirement to reach that agreement was the disarming of the war militias, with the exception of Hezbollah’s weapons, and Saudi Arabia agreed to such terms despite knowing that the party was established, funded, and provided with weapons by Iran.
It is likely that Saudi Arabia agreed to the terms at the request of Syria, perhaps in addition to certain guarantees. Whatever the case, it soon became clear the step taken by Saudi Arabia were misplaced, because the issue that may have contributed to ending the civil war created the Hezbollah problem, a political problem that remained and grew larger with time and interfered with Lebanese stability over a period of more than 20 years.
What is worse is that the current Syrian revolution has confirmed to everyone that Hezbollah’s weapons are, more than anything else, a strategic stockpile in the Levant put in place by Iran to threaten the Syrian rebels. In the same way, they are problematic because if they protect the Assad regime from falling, they even threaten the regional stability.
Relations began to decline with the renewal of the former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud in 2004, a renewal imposed by the Syrian president on the Lebanese through force and threats. It seemed that the insistence on the survival of Lahoud was wan indication that Damascus was horrified, lacked wisdom, and did not trust anyone whose loyalty they hadn’t tested.
We have to remember that the renewal came after the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of the regime there, nearly four years after Bashar came to power. It also seems that the extension of Lahoud’s power was part of the liquidation of the Syrian team that was holding the Lebanese file, which was the team from the old guard that was opposed to the succession process that took place in Damascus. Afterwards, the assassination of Rafik Hariri occurred, followed by a series of assassinations of a number of Lebanese oppositions leaders of Syrian policy in Lebanon.
These events seem to have turned the filtering process of the Lebanese team, which was close to the old guard. Thus, it was only natural for the Saudi-Syrian relations to start deteriorating, and it became clear the Damascus changed its rules of understanding with Riyadh.
After the assassination, the Syrian president expressed no interest in knowing who assassinated Hariri. Rather, his actions were aimed at closing the file of this topic, as well as all the files of all the assassinations that preceded. Meanwhile, the goal of Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, and the most important ally of Bashar in Beirut, was to defend the Syrian president. When the International Court formally charged Hezbollah, Damascus started to defend the party. In actuality, it all turned into a political game, not a serious judicial process: the party defended Damascus, and Damascus defended the party, exchanging support when necessary.
Thus, the question in this case is: What is the relationship between the inheritance of power and the deterioration in the Saudi-Syrian relations? The answer is that this deterioration occurred not because Saudi Arabia, a royal regime, has a problem with inheritance itself, but because the succession happened in the republican regime behind the scenes and in an unclear manner.
So did Damascus’ priorities change after the inheritance of power? And what does Iran have to do with this matter? Why did Nasrallah rise under Bashar and become close to the Mohajareen Palace, contrary to what was the case during the days of Assad, the father?
All along, Bashar had a fear of the Americans, who eventually became his neighbors to the east, just as he was afraid of the old guard and its allies in Lebanon. With time, he found himself caught in a larger and more dangerous fear: A popular uprising demanding the overthrow of his regime. Ironically, in this moment, he has found that everyone, except Tehran and Moscow, disappeared from around him. But what were Saudi Arabia’s relations with Syria in the early days of the revolution and why did they end up in a complete break? Was Saudi Arabia ever with the revolution?
n Courtesy of Al-Hayat newspaper