Ri­vals use Syria as tar­get on Iran

Arab Spring re­news power pol­i­tics for shifts in Shi­ite, Sunni in­flu­ences


DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMI­RATES round a gold-draped hall in Saudi Ara­bia, Gulf envoys lis­tened to their host de­nounce the Syr­ian regime as an en­emy of its peo­ple and the re­gion.

What they re­ally heard were fresh salvos in the Arab Spring’s wider war: Saudi lead­ers and their Gulf part­ners hop­ing to deal crip­pling blows to Iran’s footholds in the Mid­dle East.

On mul­ti­ple fronts, the Arab up­heavals present op­por­tu­ni­ties for the Gulf states to bol­ster their in­flu­ence, con­sol­i­date power and pos­si­bly leave re­gional ri­val Iran with­out its crit­i­cal al­liances that flow through Da­m­as­cus.

“Nearly ev­ery­where you look in the Mid­dle East now, Iran is some­how in the picture,” said Sami Alfaraj, di­rec­tor of the Kuwait Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies. “And where you have Iran, that means its ri­valry with Saudi Ara­bia is also there.”

Saudi Ara­bia al­ready plays a white knight role as pro­tec­tor of the fel­low Sunni monar­chy in neigh­bor­ing Bahrain, where a Shi­ite-led up­ris­ing is per­ceived by Gulf lead­ers as em­bold­ened by Iran.

Mean­while, Gulf states have pledged aid and other help to the Pales­tinian group Ha­mas to nudge it from Iran’s or­bit.

But Syria rep­re­sents a much big­ger prize. Shi­ite cres­cent

A col­lapse of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s rule likely would end Iran’s cozy ties with Syria and po­ten­tially re­draw the Mid­dle East’s path­ways of in­flu­ence.

In­stead of the so-called “Shi­ite cres­cent” — from Iran through Iraq and onto Mr. As­sad’s regime led by Shi­ite off­shoot Alaw­ites — a new cor­ri­dor of al­lies could be forged from Saudi Ara­bia, through Jor­dan and into Syria.

It also would choke off aid chan­nels to Tehran’s main anti-is­rael fac­tion, Hezbol­lah in Le­banon, which could be forced to work more closely with other, more mod­er­ate Lebanese po­lit­i­cal groups.

“The regime is in­sist­ing on im­pos­ing it­self by force on the Syr­ian peo­ple,” Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Saud alFaisal said in a rare tele­vised news con­fer­ence Sun­day af­ter meet­ings with Gulf Arab coun­ter­parts in Riyadh.

He gave no di­rect com­ment on grow­ing Gulf pro­pos­als to help arm Syr­ian rebels, but noted that in­ter­na­tional cease-fire ef­forts have “failed to stop the mas­sacres” af­ter nearly a year of blood­shed, in­clud­ing in­tense shelling in an op­po­si­tion strong­hold in the city of Homs.

AThe United Na­tions re­cently put the death toll for a year of vi­o­lence in Syria at 7,500, but ac­tivist groups say the toll has sur­passed 8,000.

“If the Syr­ian peo­ple want to de­fend them­selves, is there some­thing greater than the right to de­fend one­self and hu­man rights?” he said. “The regime is not wanted by the peo­ple.”

In a di­rect jab at Mr. As­sad’s regime, he said there are Syr­i­ans “who do not rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple [and] who work with Iran.”

A move by Saudi Ara­bia and other Gulf states, such as Qatar, to fun­nel weapons to the Syr­ian rebels would mark an­other ma­jor step in the Gulf’s am­bi­tious trans­for­ma­tion into the Mid­dle East’s clear­ing­house for bold ges­tures and well-funded in­flu­ence.

Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates were the main Arab con­tin­gents in the NATO-LED airstrikes against Moam­mar Gad­hafi’s forces in Libya. Re­gional me­di­a­tion ef­forts in­cluded talks hosted by Qatar last month be­tween Ha­mas and the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity on a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ac­cord. ‘Iran’s Mid­dle East net­work’

The six-na­tion Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil, mean­while, is dis­cussing “union” plans that could mesh their de­fense and for­eign poli­cies — in a clear re­ply to Iran’s at­tempt at ex­pand­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Gulf.

The coun­cil has of­fered mem­ber­ship to the monar­chies in Morocco and Jor­dan in a pos­si­ble bid to di­vert some of the re­gional clout from the Arab League.

The Western-al­lied Gulf — the base for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and hun­dreds of Amer­i­can war­planes — also could fig­ure promi­nently in any mil­i­tary at­tack plans on Iran’s nu­clear sites.

No Gulf state has re­la­tions with Is­rael, but open­ing airspace for planes could be an op­tion.

On Sun­day, Pres­i­dent Obama said he does not want war with Iran but in­sisted that he would at­tack if it is the only al­ter­na­tive to stop Tehran’s de­vel­op­ment of a nu­clear weapon.

He made the re­marks to the Amer­i­can Is­rael Public Af­fairs Com­mit­tee a day be­fore his White House meet­ing with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, whose na­tion has not ruled out a uni­lat­eral at­tack against Iran’s nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties.

The U.S. and its al­lies fear that Iran’s uranium en­rich­ment even­tu­ally could lead to de­vel­op­ment of nu­clear weapons. Amer­i­can of­fi­cials have ap­pealed for time to al­low in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions to bite deeper into Iran’s econ­omy.

Iran claims it seeks re­ac­tors only for en­ergy and med­i­cal re­search.

It is un­clear how the stand­off with the West could shift if Iran also loses its axis with Mr. As­sad.

It would, how­ever, leave a “big hole in Iran’s Mid­dle East net­work,” said Mustafa Alani, an an­a­lyst at the Gulf Re­search Cen­ter based in Geneva.

“The U.S. could def­i­nitely be wait­ing to see how Syria plays out be­fore mak­ing any de­ci­sions,” he said.

Iran has hedged on Syria as the cri­sis un­folded — ask­ing for talks with the op­po­si­tion, but stand­ing be­hind Mr. As­sad’s le­git­i­macy to rule.

Last week, Ira­nian For­eign Min­is­ter Ali Ak­bar Salehi de­nounced any “in­ter­fer­ence” of for­eign pow­ers in Syria that could “com­pli­cate the sta­tus quo,” Ira­nian state TV re­ported.

David Hartwell, se­nior Mid­dle East an­a­lyst at the de­fense and in­tel­li­gence group IHS Janes, said it ap­pears that Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar even­tu­ally could break with Western part­ners that are still hes­i­tant to arm the Syr­ian rebels.

“Riyadh and Doha . . . re­main un­likely to share Western fears about wors­en­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Syria,” Mr. Hartwell said. “In­deed, the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing po­si­tion the [Syr­ian rebels find them­selves] in may pro­vide Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar with even more jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sup­ply­ing them with weapons.”

Pro­test­ers wave a rev­o­lu­tion­ary flag on top of a mosque in north­ern Syria. Regime change in Da­m­as­cus could break pow­er­ful ties with Iran and change the course of de­fense and for­eign poli­cies through­out the Mid­dle East.

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