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Saudi Arabia prefers to work in the shadows, flexing its diplomatic weight without attracting too much attention.
So it is surprising that its veteran foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, lashed out at Syria at an Arab League meeting a week ago, taking actions that have thrust Riyadh to the forefront of a policy aiming for political transition in Damascus.
By withdrawing Saudi members from the team of Arab monitors, a decision that was quickly followed by other Gulf states, and by calling for “all possible pressure” on Damascus and holding a meeting in Cairo with the Syrian opposition, the prince dealt a blow to a mission he deemed a failure and injected momentum into stalled diplomacy.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia had come in for internal criticism for not taking the lead on the Syrian uprising, which has dominated Arab media and political commentary for months. Seen as the protector of the status quo during a year of popular uprisings across the Arab world, the Saudis were silent on Syria for several months before King Abdullah in August delivered his tough warning that the “killing machine” had to stop.
Although Riyadh has backed a harsh line on Syria since then, it is Qatar, which now chairs the Arab League, that has been the face of Arab opposition to the 11-year regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi relations with Syria have often been difficult, with periods of severe crisis over Lebanon and frustration over Damascus’ close alliance with Iran. Before the uprising erupted last March, Riyadh was attempting to woo Damascus away from Tehran.
People familiar with official thinking say Saudi rulers have grappled with policy over the past year. Some are said to have argued for a softer approach while others stressed that Saudi strategic interests lay with the protesters. A new government in Damascus, likely to be Sunni dominated, is certain to align itself with Arab neighbours, thereby weakening Iran.
The advocates of the tough line won out as the violence in Syria escalated and the regime showed no sign of negotiating a political solution. At the same time, however, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran worsened, reaching a new low after the discovery of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent Saudi commentator, sees Syria policy now as part of “the war against Iran”, one strand of a multifaceted battle that includes Saudi support for the European oil embargo and western financial restrictions on the Islamic republic. Amid growing confidence that the kingdom has escaped the winds of change sweeping through the region, he adds, the attitude in Riyadh is “let’s get the most” out of the situation.
Yet no one in Riyadh is under any illusion about the complexity of the crisis in Syria – a country with a delicate sectarian balance and a strategic position in both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni Arab states’ power struggle with Shia Iran. The conflict on the ground, moreover, has become increasingly militarised as defectors challenge Mr Assad’s security forces, and the government loses control of parts of the country.
Saudi Arabia has now given fresh ammunition to western allies at the UN Security Council to push back against Russia, which has so far blocked action. The Arab League is asking the Security Council to adopt a peace plan that calls on Mr Assad to give powers to a vice-president and form a national unity government.
The transition envisaged is being marketed as a compromise between Russian opposition to military intervention and western calls for the immediate departure of Mr Assad.
Predictably, however, Damascus has dismissed the Arab plan as unacceptable interference and ridiculed undemocratic Gulf states for attempting to teach it about pluralism. Russia is now seeking to dilute a Security Council resolution based on the Arab plan.
“The substance of what is being offered and the fact that it is the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, that are doing the engagement gives a window of opportunity to turn the Russians around,” says Salman Sheikh, analyst at the Brookings Doha Centre.
“Syria is an axis nation: if the situation continues to go wrong, you have the division of the region and a division internationally and that won’t be helpful to anyone. If you can form alliances and consensus regionally and internationally this will take us forward at a time when the situation looks very dire.”
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