Drawn-Out Involvement In Syria Brings Risks


BMI View: Saudi Arabia has stepped up its involvement in the Syrian civil war in recent months, asserting a leadership role that was previously occupied by Qatar. This rising exposure carries several risks: the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict could ignite further tensions in Saudi Arabia's Shi'a dominated Eastern Province, and will accelerate the flow of Saudi jihadists to Syria. At the same time, Riyadh has few concrete tools to influence events on the ground.

Saudi Arabia has stepped up its involvement in the Syrian civil war in recent months , asserting a leadership position that was previously occupied by Qatar. The Kingdom has become the main provider of arms to the rebels opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime , taking a larger role in supervising supply channels and recently carrying out deliveries of anti-aircraft weapons . On the diplomatic front, Riyadh has nurtured close relationships with moderate factio ns within the Syrian opposition. In the last few weeks, Saudi officials have upped their rhetoric against the Syrian regime - accusing the government of waging "genocide" on June 25, and urging the European Union on June 30 to "immediately" arm the rebels.

Reasserting Control

Riyadh has positioned itself as an opponent of the Assad regime since August 2011 , when it recalled its ambassador from Damascus . Saudi deliveries of military equipment to the rebels were first reported in March 2012. Yet Saudi Arabia's influence with the rebels was until recently overshadowed by Qatar, which played an equal ly active part in sending weaponry and funding while also assuming the task of coordinating the various opposition groupings. Qatar spearheaded the formation of the Syrian National Coalition (S C) in Doha in November 2012, an attem pt to build a united opposition front. T he Qatar-backed Ghassan Hitto was elected in March 2013 as the interim prime minister of an opposition Syrian government.

However, recent developments have motivated a shift in Riyadh's calculations. Qatar's efforts have come under widespread suspicion by the West, the rest of the GCC, and Syrian opposition figures themselves . Doha has been accused of f avouring groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to the detriment of more moderate factions (a charge also levelled in other countries in the region), and of indiscriminately delivering weapons to radical Islamist brigades (see 'Increasing Backlash From Assertive Foreign Policy', May 20) . Its involvement with the opposition has brought little tactical gains, with the rebels suffering a series of defeats on the battlefield since the beginning of the year.

Saudi Arabia has historically been deeply suspicious of the Brotherhood (a trait shared with the UAE), and has long feared the prospect of radical Islamists forming networks in the GCC or destabilising the rest of the region. These concerns are therefore likely to have prompted Saudi Arabia to tighten its control on arm flows, as well as forcing a downscaling of the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in the SC. In May 2013, the SC's membership was expanded to include more moderate figures, reducing the Brotherhood's power.

The growing involvement of Iran and Lebanese Shi'a militant organisation Hizbullah - which played a key role in the Syrian government's recapture of the strategic city of Qusair on June 5 - also helps explain Saudi Arabia's shift to a more hands-on approach. Saudi Arabia has a long-standing rivalry with Iran, and has a long-term interest in countering Iranian influence over Syria and the rest of the region. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the K ingdom's foreign minister, stated on June 25 that Saudi Arabia "cannot be silent" a t Iran and Hizbullah's intervention in Syria.

Risks Increase As Conflict Drags On

With Syria rapidly becoming the stage of a full-blown proxy war, Saudi Arabia is set to remain increasingly entwined in the conflict (see 'Proxy War Set To Intensify', May 30) This rising exposure , however, carries several important risks. These were clearly highlighted on June 15, when the country's stock exchange fell by 4.3% after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud cut short his summer leave to fly home, citing " the repercussions of the events that are currently taking place in the region".

We see little hope for a quick resolution to the Syrian civil war; our view is for the conflict to remain in a deadlock barring any large-scale external intervention, with the Assad regime unable to defeat the rebels and the rebels unable to overrun the capital Damascus and other key cities . This stalemate, combined with the growing participation of militi as from neighbouring countries (such as Hizbullah and Iraq's Abu Fadl al-Abbas ) , is fuelling sectarian tensions across the region, including in Saudi Arabia itself (see 'Sunni-Shi'a Divide Heightening Political Risks', May 24) . On June 6, the Saudi grand mufti praised a fellow Sunni cleric for attacking Hizbu llah, and declared that " i n this historic moment, we decl are our support for the sheikh and call upon all Muslim clerics to take steps to stop the aggression of this hateful, sectarian party - and whoever is behind it. "

However, any rise in sectarian rhetoric poses a twofold problem for the Saudi regime. The country possesses a significant Shi'a minority, who make up approximately 10% of the population and are concentrated in the east of the country, home to nearly 90% of oil production. Unrest has long simmered in the Eastern Province, fuelled by socio-economic tensions and sectarian discrimination (see 'Rising Domestic And External Challenges', September 14) . Thousands of Saudi Shi'as protested against the ruling family on June 26, at the funeral of a wanted man shot by security forces a few days earlier. The hardening of the regional sectarian divide could further increase the eastern Shia's ' sense of marginalisation and ignite more sweeping anti-government protests .

Moreover, rising sectarian tensions and the length of the conflict will help to attract more Saudi volunteers to Syria - thereby realising the K ingdom's fears. Thousands of Saudis joined previous conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq, before eventually returning home as radicalised veterans and moving against the regime. As early as June 2012, the Council of Senior Ulema, Saudi Arabia's highest religious body, issued an edict prohibiting jihad in Syria without permission from the authorities. However, the government has few effective tools to stem the flow of men and donations to jihadist groups in Syria.

Lastly, Riyadh will find it difficult to control events on the ground - the same problem previously faced by Qatar . While having access to a larger and more experienced foreign policy staff, Saudi Arabia can in practice do little more than its neighbour to improve the rebels' coordination or change the tide on the battlefield. Nor is it likely to fully succeed in micromanaging weapon shipments and stopping their transfer to more radical groupings. In contras t to Hizbullah, which acts as a semi-autonomous arm of Iranian foreign policy, Saudi Arabia has no fully reliable forces on Syrian soil. The country therefore finds itself dependent on the prospect of a more active Western involvement in the Syrian conflict - an outcome we deem unlikely at this stage.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria