Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The regional balance after al-Assad | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Over the past two weeks there has been an important shift in the course of the Syrian crisis. Firstly, voluntary military councils united under the “Free Syrian Army” [FSA] organization. Then Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States led the “Friends of Syria” initiative that legitimately recognized the Syrian National Council [SNC], whilst some countries pledged to establish a fund to pay the salaries of the FSA, and finance relief operations for refugees.

Another no less significant development was the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s announcement pledging its commitment to a civil, democratic state where all sects and ethnic groups are equal. In an unprecedented step for an Islamist movement in the region, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would not oppose a female or non-Muslim president, which represents a progressive stance ahead of their Islamist peers, particularly the mother Brotherhood organization in Egypt, which is still not able to shed its ideological guise or partisan interests.

With regards to these transformations, there is an important question: Will the changes in Syria lead to a new regional balance? In other words will there be a move away from the axis of “opposition and resistance” that was sponsored by Iran and Syria, which radical armed movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas – along with other groups loyal to the Imamate trend, voluntarily submitted to? Will the arrival of some Islamic trends to power prompt these radical groups to moderate their visions, in order to ensure regional peace?

In his famous article “Security in the Persian Gulf” (1979) – which was published in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in the quarterly “Foreign Affairs” journal – Professor Ruhi Ramazani noted that the regional balance of power in the Middle East at the end of World War II consisted of three principal countries: Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Later on, in the early 1970s, both Iraq and Syria joined the system of regional power. However, it is interesting that all the aforementioned states – with the exception of Saudi Arabia – have sought, at times, to give priority to military expansion at the expense of domestic development. They sought to amplify their arsenals – or at least how they were perceived – with projects; some genuine and others imaginary, in order to impose themselves as a difficult number in regional equations, but this always ended in failure.

President Jamal Abdul Nasser tried to portray Egypt as a strong and adventurous political force, in revolutionary projects to support ideological officers, but this experience led to Egypt losing every war it entered into. This was then followed by the Shah of Iran, who sought to build a huge military establishment to impose himself as the “policeman of the region”, but this force was of no benefit in the face of the tide of religious fundamentalism that mobilized the revolution against him. Then Iraq and Iran entered into an absurd conflict that destroyed the destinies of both countries, and when the war ended, Saddam Hussein moved to blackmail his neighbors. He invaded a neighboring country in order to shatter his troops who were fleeing in the face of a superior international coalition, he lived under a state of besiegement which ended with his regime being undermined, and subsequently Iraq entered the tunnel of sectarian division. As for Syria, after spending thirty years in Lebanon its army emerged broken, and ended up disintegrating in an internal war between the al-Assad regime and those revolting against its tyrannical reign. Even the Egyptian army, which was able to restore part of its image in the 1973 October War, has now been involved for more than a year in the management of Egypt’s transitional process following the January Revolution, and has lost its focus and efficiency due to the temptations of governance, in a country that continues to experience a state of instability.

Another example of economic blockade and deceptive slogans is represented by the discourse of the hardline Iranian regime, which appears to the outside as a strong, resolute challenger developing ballistic missiles and staging huge military displays in Gulf territorial waters, but behind the veneer this power and strength is merely imaginary. The regime has lost its legitimacy among a large number of the Iranian electorate, and the Revolutionary Guards seem closer to the mentality of a militia force than a professional military establishment with the technology and experience capable of confronting the outside world. It is true that the regime relies on tactics of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, but this is not enough to secure the security of the state against any external challenge.

In a sea of such disorder, the Saudi military force has emerged as the only remaining power with the readiness and efficiency, and most importantly of all, a wise and moderate political leadership with regards to its dealing with regional realities. The talk about Saudi military superiority – especially air defense – does not diminish the importance and size of the other armies in the region, but it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia’s chances of strengthening its regional position and domestic stability are better than others.

In an important scientific article by researchers Joshua Shifrinson and Miranda Priebe published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] entitled: “A Crude Threat :The Limits of an Iranian Missile Campaign against Saudi Arabian Oil”, it was concluded that Iran – and other regional powers – have a military establishment that is not efficient enough to carry out their threats. The researchers also indicated that Saudi Arabia has sufficient strength and readiness to deter any attacks, and that its armament projects over the next ten years will exceed its rivals in the region in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

The events of the past two years have proven that Saudi Arabia is facing unprecedented challenges to its regional security, and it requires a new strategy for defense to keep pace with these changes. Saudi Arabia today finds itself forced to confront these threats unilaterally in order to secure its interests and defend its Gulf partners. The Huthi attacks on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen in 2009 prompted Riyadh to take unilateral action to confront this crisis, and when some sectarian forces – affiliated to Iran – attempted to target the security and stability of the Kingdom of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia played a quick and direct role via the [GCC] Peninsula Shield force which was tasked with restoring Bahraini national unity in the face of extremist elements. In both cases, Saudi Arabia took its decision without referring the matter to anyone, and proved that it has the ability to unilaterally protect its interests.

During the political uprisings that struck a number of Arab countries in 2011, Saudi Arabia was clear in its stance regarding the politicization of the masses in the region, and displayed consistency and decisiveness at a time when even the superpowers were confused. Some have tried to portray Saudi Arabia as an opponent of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring”, but it turned out that Saudi Arabia was right to be concerned about drowning in the chaos and the unknown that these countries now face; at the same time Saudi Arabia was resolute in its rejection of violence, whether on the part of the authorities or the revolutionaries. The Saudi stance on the Syrian “killing machine” has also proven to be the correct interpretation of the crisis; were it not for this stance there would have been a decline in support for the Syrian people’s cause.

The battle against the al-Assad regime has become necessary to ensure the interests of the Gulf States, but also for the Syrians to remove a regime that has gone too far with regards its use of excessive force. Saudi Arabia’s message is clear; whilst others in America and Europe are gambling on chaotic change and favoring the rampant and revolutionary masses, the Saudi stance in dealing with the crisis is wiser and more balanced. It is therefore not surprising that Western officials find themselves forced to go to Riyadh because they can find a partner there, as for those states that have been beset by chaos, who will they turn to?