Joseph Bahout has an interview in Le Journal de dimanche in which he expands on the competing interests of Iran and Saudi Arabia (and Turkey as well,) noting that the recent isolation of Syria has left Assad with only Iranian support. Bahout calls the fall of the Assad regime a ‘red line’ and says that the Saudi decision to condemn Assad and withdraw its ambassador was driven by a ‘genetic, counter-revolutionary reflex’ (see Lynch also) and an ‘annoyance of Iranian influence.’ Although the Saudi support of the Syrian protesters clearly demonstrates a strong sense of realpolitik and not a counter-revolutionary reflex, the idea of Syria being transformed into a regional battleground is spot-on.
The Iranian support for Assad is unsurprising. The Syrian leader represents an important lynchpin in the resistance axis, connecting Iran to its Hezbollah proxy while preventing Syria from gaining a Sunni leader that would align closer to Cairo or Riyadh. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia is moving to create change in Syria to alter the regional balance, providing a black eye for Iran and perhaps looking to install a leadership that would be more representative of the Syrian majority and thus more susceptible to Saudi (Sunni) influence. From Bahout:
Essentially, in the Syrian conflict, is there also a Iranian-Saudi rivalry manifesting?
Yes, this crisis is already more than just Syrian-Syrian. The country can become a final showdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Turkey and the west. The central point, it is the pressure put on Assad for him to abandon his alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. On the Iranian side, on the contrary, the fall of the Syrian regime is a red line not to be crossed.
Justement, à travers le conflit syrien, est-ce aussi la rivalité irano-saoudienne qui se manifeste?
Oui, cette crise n’est déjà plus un conflit syro-syrien. Le pays peut devenir le terrain d’un grand bras de fer final impliquant l’Iran, l’Arabie Saoudite, mais aussi la Turquie et les occidentaux. Le point central, c’est la pression mise sur Assad pour qu’il abandonne son alliance avec l’Iran et le Hezbollah. Côté iranien, à l’inverse, la chute du régime syrien est la ligne rouge à ne pas franchir.
Interestingly, the main goal of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the west – notably for Assad to drop Iran and Hezbollah – becomes less likely as Syria becomes increasingly isolated. The fewer friends Assad has, the more dependent he becomes on the remaining allies. When Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC withdrew their ambassadors and clearly sided with the protesters, Assad found himself with only Iran and Turkey – and Turkey is reportedly considering a military intervention. Iran, on the other hand, will not abandon Syria until it is undoubtedly clear that Assad has no future in Syria. Bahout considers this point as well:
Doesn’t the isolation of Syria risk reinforcing its alliance with Iran?
It is true that the more Syria is isolated, the more she needs her neighbor [Iran]… Today, the relation is inverted, there is an instrumentalization of Syria by Iran. Even as a victor, a weakened regime could turn the country into a sort of Iraq in the 1990’s: a country encircled, isolated by sanctions, weakened and impoverished. And therefore more dependent on Iranian aid, in exchange for a reinforced diplomatic allegiance. Iran could then open a new chapter in its confrontation with the west over its nuclear program. With the risk of more aggressive policies.
L’isolement de la Syrie ne risque-t-il pas de renforcer encore son alliance avec l’Iran?
C’est vrai que plus la Syrie est isolée, plus elle a besoin de son voisin… Aujourd’hui, la relation s’est inversée, on est passé à une instrumentalisation de la Syrie par l’Iran. Même vainqueur, un régime affaibli pourrait faire du pays une sorte d’Irak des années 1990 : un pays encerclé, isolé par les sanctions, affaibli, appauvri. Et donc encore plus dépendant d’une aide iranienne, en échange d’une allégeance diplomatique renforcée. L’Iran pourrait alors ouvrir un nouveau chapitre de sa confrontation avec l’Occident sur le nucléaire. Avec le risque d’une politique plus agressive.
In this way, the Syrian uprising can have two simultaneous and very different outcomes: regionally and domestically. Despite the tougher line held by Turkey and the increased rhetoric coming from Washington and Riyadh, there is little reason to believe that Assad will be forced to abdicate. Domestically, a revolutionary shift in the dynamic between the people and the government is inevitable. Regionally, if Assad is able to maintain leadership in Syria, it will represent a strategic Iranian victory over Saudi Arabia while a new Syrian regime would greatly damage Iranian interests and boost Saudi influence across the region. Turkey, on the other hand, would likely be able to regain its favorable position in Syria considering the importance of the Turkey to the Syrian economy. Likewise, the measured, yet increasing Turkish pressure on Assad will result in an increased respect for Turkey in the eyes of the Arab people across the region.
Thus, while Iran may have the upper hand in its regional struggle with Saudi Arabia (vis-à-vis Syria) Turkey has positioned itself to win regional influence regardless of the outcome of the Syrian uprising.
Photo from Tom Lehner