By Ayham Kamel
In a much publicized television appearance on Aug. 8, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia withdrew his country's support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, where the government has been beating back protesters for the last five months. The spilling of innocent blood was "against values and ethics," the king said. The Saudi ambassador in Damascus was recalled the same day, prompting similar steps by Kuwait and Bahrain. The developments came in response to Syria's military operations in the Sunni strongholds of Hama and Deir al Zour -- events that rankled the Saudi leadership.
Nevertheless, the militarization of the protest movement over the last few weeks has made Damascus even more assertive and less tolerant of dissent. As such, the situation in Syria is exacerbating Sunni-Shia tensions and raising the likelihood of conflict in all multi-sectarian nations in the region. And while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states' moves will not inhibit the regime's heavy handed strategy -- more than a dozen protestors were killed on Wednesday -- they presage Syria's emergence as the nexus of a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Heightened pressure on the Syrian regime will not lead to the immediate collapse of Assad's regime, but it will chip away at his power. The policy shift will leave Damascus more isolated and may lead Syria's political and economic elite, particularly Sunnis, to reconsider their allegiance to Assad. The GCC countries' change of heart likely also precedes a coordinated international upsurge of diplomatic and economic pressure. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has already signaled a firmer U.S. stance toward the regime, and new U.S. and European sanctions are expected in the next few weeks. Today, in fact, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the commercial bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, as well as Syriatel, the country's largest mobile phone operator. These moves, like those of the Arab states, seek to nudge the middle classes in Aleppo and Damascus, which so far have not joined the ranks of the demonstrators en masse. But the Syrian regime remains unlikely to rethink its strategy. The country's military and security establishments are firmly committed to confronting the protesters aggressively, arguing that any other approach would strengthen the opposition.
Saudi leaders, meanwhile, are still on the fence about what the kingdom's Syria policy should be. They know that a political transition would be problematic and could spark a regional confrontation, which is why the king's speech, while criticizing the Syrian regime, also called on Assad to be courageous and introduce reforms. If Syrian policy remains unchanged over the next few weeks, however, the kingdom's position will likely shift toward outright opposition. Iran, in contrast, feels threatened by the potential loss of the Assad regime and of Iran's strategic depth on the shore of the Mediterranean, and has therefore reinforced its support of the Syrian government.
These opposing moves by Riyadh and Tehran suggest that Syria will become the focal point of Iran and Saudi Arabia's regional tussle for power. Indeed, many in Riyadh are beginning to perceive the upheaval as an opportunity to contain Iranian influence in the Middle East. In the meantime, all eyes are on Ankara to see if Turkey's leaders will be able to convince Assad to accelerate his reform program and resolve the crisis.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice group.