Saudi Arabia dropped the proverbial bomb last week when it declared that it planned to send its own troops into Syria to fight ISIS. The Saudis motives to do so are probably based on two key issues:
- Riyadh wants to be seen as the champion against terror and not the entity supporting terrorists. If this sounds familiar to you, it is: that is the exact same strategy that President Hassan Rouhani led successfully for Iran.
- Riyadh doesn’t want to leave the Syrian fields at the mercy of Iran and its close allies, Bashar al-Assad, Iraq and Russia. By placing its troops in Syria, it can help the legitimate Syrian rebels fight back while fighting ISIS at the same time.
The Saudi move clearly caught Tehran off guard because it threatens to undo a lot of hard work that the Iranians have been executing for years:
- For years, Tehran has supported Assad financially, politically and militarily without any regard to the fact that a) he refused to hold free elections after he inherited his presidency from his father and b) he represents a minority of Syrians.
- For years, Tehran has rebranded itself as the regional champion against terrorism/ISIS despite the fact that a) Tehran continues to support terrorist militias in many countries in the region and b) its support of Assad has resulted in hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
- For years, Tehran has claimed that its presence in Syria is solely to fight ISIS when in reality a) Tehran doesn’t differentiate between ISIS and other legitimate Syrian rebels and b) Tehran’s record of victories in fighting ISIS is non-existent.
Riyadh tired of being labeled the sole supporters of terrorism while Tehran seemed to literally get away with murder, of watching Tehran control the destiny of Syrians while preaching to the world that only Syrians should control their destiny, of sitting idly by while legitimate Syrian rebels which Saudi Arabia supported were destroyed by the unique coalition of Assad, Tehran, Hezbollah and Russia and of being accused of unjustly fighting a war in Yemen to help the government against Shiite Houthi rebels while Tehran was doing the same on a bigger scale in Syria. Riyadh tired of Tehran’s double standards and finally called its bluff.
No serious analyst can even begin to predict the outcome of Saudi Arabian boots hitting Syrian soil because the region is so volatile that anything can happen.
But one thing is certain: Tehran is justifiably worried.
Zarif, the master of hypocrisy
Not surprisingly, Iranian FM Javad Zarif is sparing no adjectives in blasting the Saudi move: It is “childish“, an “illusion“, “propaganda slogans“, a “bluff” etc… while at the same time repeating over and over again that the fate of Syria should be left in Syrian hands and that “foreigners” should butt out. Were Zarif the foreign minister, say, Sweden or Switzerland, his remarks could be accepted wholeheartedly but the problem is that Zarif is the FM of Iran which just happens to be militarily involved in the civil war in Syria for the past 4 years on Assad’s side. Furthermore, Tehran has restated over and over again that it will continue to support Assad up to the end and Zarif even added that Iran won’t allow the Syrian rebels, Assad’s and therefore Iran’s enemies, to regroup.
Zarif’s statements are hypocritical on 3 counts:
- If he believes that Saudi Arabia’s willingness to send troops to Syria is “childish”, an “illusion” or a “propaganda slogan”, why does he believe that the deployment of Iranian troops and proxies in Syria is legitimate? The answer is simple: Tehran is dedicated to “Export the Revolution” and Assad, an Alawite closely related to Shiism is a perfect candidate to help it do so.
- If he believes that “foreigners” should leave Syria’s destiny to Syrians, why does he believe that Iran’s financial, political and military support for Assad are legitimate? The answer here is simple as well: Tehran isn’t a “foreigner” in Syria…in fact, it wants to turn Syria into a “province” of Iran just as it did with Lebanon.
- If he believes that Syrians should choose their own destinies, why is he supporting a man who refused to hold free elections and who doesn’t represent most of the Syrian people? Once again, the answer is simple: Tehran doesn’t give a damn about the “Syrian” people – it only cares about the minority of Syrians supporting Assad.
Zarif is deservedly credited for being an ace diplomat but his diplomatic skills all too often lead him to blatant hypocrisy and lies, but always with a smile J. He has been caught in his web of lies repeatedly over the past but he has always managed to cover them with his smile and his success in leading the way to a nuclear deal. Once the Saudis enter Syria, you can expect him to profusely accuse Riyadh for a number of “crimes” while ignoring the fact that Tehran has been doing so for over 4 years.
From regional rivals to war
The regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran has escalated dramatically over the past two and half years. Before that, Iran had remained in its sanctioned isolation while Saudi Arabia enjoyed the open support of the West. The elections of President Hassan Rouhani triggered a massive change which has resulted in dramatic about-face in the region. Rouhani’s “constructive engagement” with the West lead to the long awaited nuclear deal, the removal of sanctions and mega-billion dollar deals with the EU and a close alliance with Russia. Furthermore, his efforts at rebranding Iran as a champion against terrorism, and Saudi Arabia as the champion of terrorism, miraculously succeeded .
Tehran’s successes in all these areas raised the pressure on Saudi Arabia alarmingly. Not only do the Saudis doubt the efficacy of the nuclear deal in preventing Tehran form militarizing its nuclear program they suddenly found themselves under persistent criticism for supporting Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq and for fighting Houthis in Yemen. To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia came under attack from Iran in regards to human rights and sectarian violence after executing a Shiite rabble-rouser accused of instigating subversion and terrorism.
Riyadh and Tehran are already involved unevenly in two proxy wars: Riyadh supports Syrian rebels while Tehran is openly fighting in the war in Syria while Tehran supports Houthi rebels while Riyadh is openly fighting in the war in Yemen. If and when Saudi troops hit the ground in Syria, these uneven proxy wars could quickly escalate into an all-out proxy war in Syria, a similar war in Yemen, a possible similar war in Iraq and then, possibly a direct war between Tehran and Riyadh.