Saudi Arabia, US ally with problems

26 January 2016

By Marcus Halaby

For all David Cameron’s boasting that he has 70,000 “moderate” Syrian oppositionists ready to act as boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS, there is precious little sign of them being brought into action. It now seems that they will only be usable after a “political process” has engineered a split between “moderates” willing to take part and “hardliners” opposed to working with the Western “crusaders”.

To effect this split, Cameron and Obama’s main instrument is the despotic Saudi monarchy, which is the principal sponsor of the “moderates”: the liberal opposition exiles around the Syrian National Coalition, and the secular nationalist-dominated armed factions like the FSA’s Southern Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia has been preparing its constituency in the Syrian opposition for the “Vienna process”. An opposition conference hosted in Riyadh on 8 December saw a walkout by the Turkish and Qatari-supported Ahrar al-Sham, the most important Islamist faction in the north of the country; while the opposition negotiating team for the Vienna talks excludes Ahrar altogether, and is dominated by former Baathists. Saudi Arabia’s only notable Islamist ally in Syria, Jaysh al-Islam, which as expected is opposed to this process, has been weakened by the death of its leader Zahran Alloush in a Russian airstrike on 25 December.

But Saudi Arabia has problems of its own, which undermine its ability to act as an effective “peace broker”. In particular, the Saudis are bogged down in a war in Yemen, where the Shi’ite Houthi movement has joined forces with the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and where a Saudi and Egyptian-led coalition supported by the Western powers is trying to restore the government of Saleh’s former Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Hadi was installed in power in February 2012, in a Saudi-brokered “political settlement” like the one planned for Syria today, which effectively brought an end to the 2011 revolution against both Saleh and Hadi. And the Saudis blame Iran for the failure of their bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed 6,000 and left four-fifths of the population dependent on food aid, every bit as much as Putin blames Turkey and the West for Assad’s failure to crush the Syrian revolution.

The execution on 2 January of Saudi Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (alongside 46 other mainly Sunni Saudi oppositionists) has escalated tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the kingdom using an attack by demonstrators on its embassy in Tehran as a pretext for breaking off diplomatic relations. Nimr himself was an opponent of not just the obscenely wealthy Saud dynasty, but also of Syria’s Assad and the theocratic Iranian regime.

His was a powerful voice against the sectarianism that both states have encouraged in the course of their longstanding regional cold war. However that has not stopped Iran, which executed 27 Sunni Muslim prisoners of its own on 23 December, from exploiting his death in its propaganda.

And while the Western states must feel some alarm at the risk of further clashes between them, they have maintained their usual hypocritical silence when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s numerous human rights abuses. After all, a revolution in Saudi Arabia, when it finally comes, will be an even bigger disaster for Western policy than the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah.

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