Between domestic political scandals here in the United States and the developing nuclear deal with Iran, the civil war in Syria has largely fallen out of the news in recent months, despite the ever-rising death toll and destruction continuing to ravage the country. Some discussion of late has focused on the radicalization of Syrian opposition forces and the influx of foreign fighters, including the growing number of al-Qaeda affiliates competing for influence. The violence also continues to be characterized by the proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Since their founding, the modern states of Iran and Saudi Arabia view themselves as protectors of true Islam, and compete for a monopoly on Islamic interpretation and legitimacy, whatever the cost may be. Increasingly, the conflict has transformed into a Sunni-Shi’a divide, with the Saudi clerics and royals pitted against the ayatollahs in Iran. This is no less true in the wake of the Arab Spring and unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Mohsen Milani commented in Foreign Affairs, “With plenty of petrodollars at their disposal, two powerful clerical establishments that push their own unique versions of Islam, and proxies and allies spread out across the Islamic world, Iran and Saudi Arabia will aggressively seek to reshape the new Middle East to preserve and expand their power.” The ongoing war in Syria is now the most significant proxy conflict for Iran and Saudi Arabia, the culmination of years of distrust, mutual fears, and oppositional ideologies.
Syria operates as the conduit for Iranian funding and weapons to its closest ally in the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon. This tripartite relationship, functioning since Hezbollah’s formation in 1982, has incurred international outcry and fears from neighboring countries for decades; the United States estimates that $100 million in equipment and weapons is sent from Tehran to Hezbollah annually. Thus, when the civil war began in Syria, Iran was not hard-pressed to establish a foothold in the conflict. Aid, training, and equipment entered the country from Iran as early as April 2011, followed not long after by Iranian fighters and members of the elite Quds force. Iran and its coalition of Shi’a factions have a concrete interest in maintaining the status quo in Syria, motivated by fears of historic Sunni influence. Joseph Bahout writes for the US Institute of Peace, “For the Shi’a community, the potential fall of the Assad regime is a vital blow to the resistance axis linking it to Iran, and beyond this, the basis for a Sunni continuum from Lebanon to Iraq through Syria, that will threaten to return the Shi’a community to an era of subordination and Sunni domination.” This collective memory of recent and not so recent history foments ongoing violence between the ‘Alawite Assad regime and its Shi’a allies and the opposing bloc of mainly Sunni powers.
Ultimately, the Saudi state’s interest in Syria is countering the possible continuity of Shi’a power. The government in Riyadh does not benefit from the fixture of Hezbollah, Damascus, and Tehran’s alliance, and seeks to break the connection of the Shi’a crescent to its north. This manifests itself in the support of Sunni forces in Syria against the ‘Alawite regime and its Shi’a backers. Recently, the Saudi grand mufti provided tacit support for an Egyptian cleric’s call for all Sunnis to join the fight in Syria, while another cleric spoke from the Grand Mosque in Mecca encouraging Sunnis all over the world to support the Syrian rebels “by all means.” As the war continues past its second year, reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its support to the Syrian opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army. By moving arms and supplies through Jordan, the Saudis and other donors from the Gulf have managed to distribute equipment to rebels fighting the regime in Syria. Another report discussed the emergence of a new coalition of Syrian rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, that Saudi Arabia is heavily supporting as a counterbalance to the jihadist branches of al-Qaeda also fighting in the country. The force is referred to as “Muhammad’s Army,” utilizing the religious language so common to Saudi discourse to validate and legitimize its presence. Claiming this connection to Muhammad, Saudi Arabia reinforces its particular brand of religious nationalism and preeminence in Islamic interpretation.
In a statement in November, an advisor to the Saudi royal family declared that the Kingdom would not sit idly by and let Iranian forces interfere in Arab countries, saying, “We cannot accept Revolutionary Guards running round Homs.” In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, continued to employ existential language to justify Saudi support for the Sunni rebels in Syria. By calling into question the motives of the West in dealing with Iran and Syria, the ambassador warns of regional destabilization if “the foreign policy choices being made in some Western capitals” continue. The reference to Saudi Arabia as the “cradle of Islam” and the rhetoric of absolute exclusion couches the fight in Syria in existential terms, where the Iranians cannot be allowed to influence the outcome of the conflict for fear of the possible Shi’a satellite were Syria to be completely consumed by Iran’s ideology.
Demonstrating Syria’s role as the proxy battlefield for Shi’a and Sunni conflict, especially between Iranian ideology and Saudi protection for Sunni Islam, is the involvement of thousands of outside fighters in the civil war. In July 2013 it was estimated that around 5,000 Sunni fighters from over 60 countries had joined forces with the Syrian opposition since the conflict began in 2011, making the country the “second-largest foreign-fighter destination in the history of modern Islamism,” after the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. Shi’a fighters from all over the world have flooded the country as well, represented especially by Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah members. While some incoming Shi’a allege that their interests lay only with protecting Shi’a mosques in Syria, others are directly engaged in hostilities. Hezbollah, Iran’s most significant instrument against Sunni incursions in the Levant, actively fights against the Syrian opposition in the south of the country, and other groups are reported as combating Sunni forces in and around Damascus.
Meanwhile, over 130,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, millions are displaced and have been made refugees both in the country and beyond, and the conflict seems even farther from resolution than previous months. The deal over Iran’s nuclear program has largely shifted international attention away from Syria, leaving Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue their proxy war unperturbed. It is estimated that by the end of 2014 over 10,000 foreign fighters will be engaged in the Syrian civil war, contesting the Sunni or Shi’a nature of the country. While many international analysts and governments fear the victory of an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria, there should be just as much concern about the battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence in the region. As long as the two countries compete for political and theological power within the borders of other sovereign states, there can be no resolution to the conflicts in the Middle East. These two countries have emerged from centuries of conquest into political entities replete with religious nationalism and exclusionary tendencies, enacted on stages from the United States to Afghanistan to Bosnia to Iraq to Syria. Overcoming centuries of distrust and collective memories of subjugation is extremely difficult, but for the sake of the millions of Syrians and neighboring countries affected by the conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran should attempt the impossible.
In just a few days, on January 22, the Geneva II conference is scheduled to convene peace talks to address the Syrian civil war. The talks will be driven by the UN, EU, Arab League, and many individual states, including Saudi Arabia. Until yesterday, Iran was not included in the list of participants, despite being the Assad regime’s closest ally and having a direct role in the fighting. The sticking point is the exclusion of President Bashar al-Assad from the future of the Syrian state, which Iran opposes and many Western powers support. This difference of opinion is of course nothing new, and should not bar Iran from contributing to the talks. At the last moment, the UN extended an invitation to Iran to join the conference, and Iran agreed, although refusing to conform to any preconditions, including the rejection of President Assad’s leadership. The inclusion of Iran is an important step, because as a participant in the conflict, the Iranian government should also be a participant in the peace process, especially since Saudi Arabia occupies the same responsibility and is already a party to the talks. The Geneva II conference continues to hang in limbo though, as the Syrian National Coalition threatened to pull out of the talks if Iran is included. While Saudi Arabia and Western powers remain skeptical about the role Iran plays in the Syrian conflict, the talks should be given the chance to end the bloody civil war.