Friday, October 02, 2015

Head-On: The Coming Middle East Collision

Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars

by Jennifer Loewenstein - CounterPunch

A recent Guardian article (“Saudi Arabia says there is no future for Assad in Syria”) Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeil is quoted saying, “This [the Syrian civil war] could be a more lengthy process and a more destructive process but the choice is entirely that of Bashar al-Assad.”

The foreign minister did not specify how Assad would be forcibly removed, only that Saudi Arabia would tolerate nothing short of a complete regime change in Syria. Jubeil but claimed that Saudi Arabia is backing “moderate rebels” in the civil war.”

The Saudis are indeed backing ‘moderate’ rebels — if the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate is considered ‘moderate’. It is ostensibly allied with Saudi Arabia.) With memories of Afghanistan in mind, Saudi Arabian officials are genuinely concerned about “blowback,” and for good reasons. A branch of Islamic State (aka: ISIS or ISIL) in Saudi Arabia has already carried out attacks in its northeastern, predominantly Shi’ite province and against the Saudi government itself. Saudi officials are well aware that Islamic State, with its own roots in Saudi Wahhabism (an extreme form of fundamentalist Islam) the ruling family could come under attack, in part because of its close relationship to Washington.

A February 2014 report by Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had recently banned its citizens from fighting in ‘foreign wars’, promising 3-20 years imprisonment for violating this law. It also banned its citizens from sending material support to certain Jihadi groups fighting in Syria. It cannot stop private individuals inside or outside the Kingdom from giving millions to support the actions of ISIS, however, considered by some to be a form of ‘Islamist fascism’.

After nearly six months of a brutal response by the Syrian military to non-violent protesters in Dera’a, Syria where protests for certain government reforms began in 2011, a number of people turned to armed conflict to fight the regime. This opened the door to a host of competing outside proxies arming and supporting a variety of groups within Syria, upping the stakes of the war considerably. In particular, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S.- knowingly or unknowingly – aided the rise of ISIS.

The United States has a long history of trying to topple the Ba’athist government in Syria, ruled by Hafez al-Assad for 40 years and now by his son, Bashar. A secret document leaked to the press by Wikileaks revealed that State Department and CIA officials sought to destabilize Syria for years, in part by stoking sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and through support of anti-regime Islamist factions, some of which fled to Syria after the US ‘surge’ in Iraq in 2007. US officials now claim to be arming and training only ‘moderate rebels’ now – not understanding that many ‘moderates’ have defected to, or are fighting against and losing to, ISIS and its affiliates. This helps account for the flow of arms into Syria, and into the hands of ISIS members, that has radically changed the character of the war, turning it into an even bloodier disaster.

Meanwhile, with rumors circulating that a high level Saudi prince has written a letter calling for ‘regime change’ in Riyadh, apparently supported by many in the royal family, Saudi Arabia’s own stability could be called into question. The new Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad (“reckless”) bin Salman, a young, inexperienced leader has been made Defense Minister and is largely responsible for overseeing the Saudi war in Yemen. According to a senior Saudi military officer who defected to Dhahran, many Saudis strongly oppose the war in Yemen. as they witness the most powerful Arab state in the region destroying the people and treasures of the poorest. It has also been claimed that there are rumblings of discontent with the current leadership by Saudi royals in the country (“Saudi Royal calls for Regime Change in Riyadh”, the Guardian, 28 Sept.)

Hardline foreign policies advocated by the newly appointed Interior Minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, have been aimed primarily against Iran – seen as backing Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as pro-Assad forces in Syria. Saudi Arabian and Iranian-backed factions are contributing to the proxy war in Syria, now also complicated by Russian and US airstrikes across the country. These airstrikes are supposed to be a coordinated attack by Russia and the US against ISIS, but what has apparently emerged is that Russia is attacking the US-backed ‘moderate’ rebel forces in an effort to bolster the Syrian regime while the US has been trying – and failing – to support those same forces in order to weaken both Assad and ISIS simultaneously. US efforts have been a disastrous failure, even according to senior military personnel in Washington. Russian-US and Saudi-Iranian goals within an already tumultuous Syria may put the entire region on a collision course.

It is difficult to find a more cynical and deadly scenario in global politics today.

Jennifer Loewenstein is a human rights activist and faculty associate in Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She can be reached at:
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