US-Saudi Relations Strain over Syria

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By Muhammad Nawaz Khan  : –

Though Washington and Riyadh have different views about the turbulent situation in the Middle East yet as far as their old ties are concerned it is expected these would suffer no dent and the two would remain strategically aligned. Their mutual interests do not permit a break. The US-Saudi relationship dates back to the end of World War II. It was founded on an agreement under which the US was to provide defence for the Arab world in exchange for oil contracts. The US role in the Asian region is now changing with the drawdown from Afghanistan, the end of the war in Iraq, and with the prospects of US attaining self-sufficiency in oil. The current Washington-Riyadh tactical differences over their policy approach towards Syria have tangibly soured the relations because Riyadh’s perceived pivotal regional threat does not correspond to the prevalent notions in Washington’s power corridors.

The foremost issue is Syria, though the underlying dynamic here is Tehran’s regional expansionism, “as the Saudi-Iranian enmity has been solidified with the Syrian turmoil.” The US outreach to Iran and its fluid policy towards Syria, is vexing the Saudi power tiers that conceive their arch-foe Tehran being empowered at their expense, thus challenging Riyadh’s conventional regional superiority. To the Saudis, this appeasement of Iran will enable Tehran to further raise its regional stature without the US shield.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has quite earlier shed off any hope that the US can stop the turmoil in Syria, rather to Riyadh’s disappointment the US policies have been instrumental in the creation of ISIS. Riyadh fears that a possible US withdrawal from the Middle Eastern (ME) and a diplomatic gambit towards Iran would embolden Tehran’s regional designs.

The elemental centre-piece of the Washington-Riyadh relationship has been tied to four essential cornerstones in recent decades: a) Riyadh’s monopolization of the oil market; b) the kingdom’s spiritual stature in the Islamic world; c) ME security horizon; and d) the war on terrorism after 9/11. However, uncertainties have now clouded the future of these four cornerstones which have seen dramatic changes that once provided the foundation for the strategic relationship between Riyadh and Washington. This change has forced Riyadh to explore new strategic partners, and identifying alternative potential allies in Asia for security calculus in the ME region. The doubtful future of these four pillars is changing the dynamics of US-Saudi strategic relationship by making Riyadh vulnerable to future tensions and strains.

The shifting energy landscape has far-reaching implications for US-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia’s spare oil production capacity in the oil market is falling and with this its hegemony over the oil market is also weakening. Contrarily, the US is now enjoying more oil freedom and its oil dependency is getting less on its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Riyadh will no more be in position to employ oil as a political weapon, as it once did in the 1970s, and will have to put in much effort to persuade Washington to accept Riyadh’s regional outlook, specifically toward Syria and Iran.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned about Washington’s commitment to ME security as Washington’s security perception in the Arab zone is divergent to that of Saudi Arabia’s, which is complicating the US-Saudi relationship. For instance, Israel’s security calculation is most important for Washington’s foreign policy priorities. It sees Syria as a potential threat for Israel’s security, but not in the case of Riyadh, that is why it wanted to weaken Syria to the extent that it could not challenge the Israeli hegemony in the region. Moreover, the policy deviation also observed in Bahrain’s case, as the kingdom opposed any appeasement granted by the Bahraini government to the opposition, while Washington had altogether been pressurizing the Bahraini government to formulate for its opponents some concessional policy structure, besides executing serious political reforms.

The US wants Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad gone, but attaches a much lower priority to it than Riyadh does. Riyadh considers that Washington should be contributing to reinforce the anti-Assad elements in Syria, spearheading a military campaign to overthrow Assad and help install a new regime in Syria that smoothly goes with Riyadh. However, Saudis are getting upset by the Obama administration as Riyadh was anticipating a massive US strike on Syria.

Contrary to Riyadh’s wishes President Obama is widening his campaign and wants airstrikes against the Sunni miscreants of the Islamic State in Syria that are fighting President Bashar Al-Assad, while simultaneously having a bit softer corner for the moderate rebels politically fighting against President Bashar Al-Assad. Although evidential proofs are there qualifying that some American weapons have made their way to more moderate groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, yet the prevalent disagreements over what to supply, and to whom, have mired the fight. Resultantly, the US perception about the Syrian turmoil does not match the popularly held belief of Riyadh’s power corridors, which caused a disagreement over priorities between them. The US apprehensions are that if any heavy weapons or training for the moderate Syrian rebels ever got leaked out to the Sunni militants then they might turn on the West, exactly reflecting the US experience in 1980s Afghanistan. In addition, the American officials do not want to get dragged into a chaotic civil war that currently lacks any obvious military solution, rather posing a menace to radicalize a new generation of Islamists who look towards the West with hatred.

On the one hand Riyadh is conscious of the peril of militant blowback — as occurred a decade ago when the al Qaeda campaign harassed the kingdom — but on the other hand Riyadh sees US’ reluctance as a strategic mistake. Riyadh ponders that the failure to support the moderate rebel segments in the beginning not only emboldened Assad but also permitted the militants to appear as the robust constituents in the opposition quarters. Although the Saudi authorities categorically remarked that donations to Syrian rebel or humanitarian groups should only be allocated through official routes to ensure transparency and discouraging any such access to militants, yet some private donations likely ended up in radical hands.

Saudi Arabia’s commitments against the political segments of the Shi’ite Crescent — extending from the Iranian government down to the Syrian Ba’ath and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — perceive the fall of the Assad regime as a golden opportunity to weaken Iran, their bigger regional competitor.

The writer works for IPRI

The views expressed are not of The London Post

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