By Afro-Middle East Centre
After seven years of the raging Syrian civil war, Israel has emerged from the shadows to launch a campaign in Syria, continuing its battle with Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, while also looking to capture more Syrian territory along its borders. Soon after Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from a trip to Russia, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked a branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Syria’s Hama province on 11 September. The centre is located in the town of Masyaf, sixty kilometres east of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval repair base. Israeli strikes in Syria are not uncommon. In this context, however, Israel hopes to eliminate any possible challenge to its activities in Syria, hence the recent (more than normally-) aggressive tone against Iran. Unlike Russia and the USA (two of the major external actors in Syria), Iran (with Hizbullah) and Turkey are uninterested in having Israeli interests protected. The quest to malign Iran in the region, and discredit its presence in the Syrian conflict is the reason that Israel’s double-edged campaign seeks to create a buffer zone from the border of Golan Heights further into Syria, and ward off any present and future threats from Iran and Hizbullah.
Relations between Israel and its northeastern neighbour have always been rocky. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Golan, Syrian territory which lies within an area of 444 square kilometres – from the Yarmuk River in the south, Jordan Rivre and the Sea of Galilee in the west. m Syria’s military and diplomatic attempts to force Israel out of the Golan have failed on numerous occasions, including after the 1973 war; in 1981 Israel illegally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights, and has been building settlements there since. Over the past five years, the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan has changed hands between the Syrian regime and rebel forces.
Today, the area controlled by Israel is inhabited by approximately 40 000 people, of which half are Syrian and the other half Israeli Jewish settlers. The Golan Heights is a strategic asset that supplies Israel with 30 percent of its fresh water from the Jordan river. The Golan also has fertile agricultural lands for multiple products and is useful for the production of renewable energy.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel’s occupation of the Golan has remained in the background, allowing Israel’s ambitions to extend its control beyond two-thirds of the Golan Heights to fester. This is seen starkly in Israel’s demands to extend its current twenty-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ into Syria. Israel wants to expand the buffer zone to sixty kilometres from the border on the Golan Heights to the west of the road connecting Damascus and the city of al-Suwayda in southwest Syria.
This buffer zone in Syria would mirror Israel’s ‘Good fence’ policy employed in Lebanon when the civil war broke out in 1975. There, Israel established military and social networks with local Lebanese groups, assisting them to fill the vacuum that had been left by the government in terms of service provision as a way to sustain its occupation of Lebanese territory. In Syria this ‘good fence policy’ aims to consolidate Israeli control over Syrian territory as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s position strengthens in the six-year civil war, and Hizbullah and Iran become increasingly entrenched.
In June 2017, Israel provided funding and aid to certain Syrian rebel factions – particularly Fursan al-Joulan (Knights of Golan), through the Golan. Fursan al-Joulan boasts 400 fighters and is close to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Israeli effort to support it was set up in 2013 by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Fursan al-Joulan has effectively maintained security on Israel’s behalf in Syria-controlled Golan in exchange for the group receiving $5 000 a month, as well as food and medical supplies. Israel seeks to thus alter and shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war, in a way that ensures that it continues its occupation of the Golan. Israel also seeks to realise its interests is by getting the USA and Russia to uphold these interests in Syria via the ceasefire deal negotiated in Astana in Kazakhstan by Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Syria.
With the recent agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey, supported by Jordan and the USA, Israel saw an opportunity to expand its control of Syrian territory further, and its sporadic air-strikes in Syria are part of this agenda. The strikes, which Israel claims targetHizbullah arms convoys or warehouses, have been the biggest indicator of its involvement in the Syrian war. These airstrikes had previously resulted in strong diplomatic reaction from Russia. Earlier this year, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, to show that it did not appreciate Israel’s actions against a Russian partner, Iran, which has played a strategic role in supporting the Asad regime. However, this Russian attitude seems to have changed more recently with a seeming romance between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Astana de-escalation deal
The Russian role in Syria has been critical to the survival of the Asad government, and has strengthened the regime’s position in the war, as well as created the possibility of a ceasefire deal that will see Turkey, Russia and Iran act as guarantors in different zones in Syria. Such a deal, which has been accepted by the USA, has spurred Israel’s campaign against what it calls a ‘permanent Iranian threat’ in Syria.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey de-escalation zones deal was signed in May in Astana, Kazakhstan, and calls for an end to hostilities between (most) rebel groups and Syrian government forces in four regions. The first zone – Idlib province in the northern region, including north-eastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province – will be monitored by Turkey; the second – Rastan and Talbiseh enclaves in northern Homs province – and the third – which includes eastern Ghouta in northern Damascus – will be monitored by Russia. The fourth zone – including areas along the Jordanian border and parts of Dar'a and Quneitra provinces – will be monitored by Iran, and this is what the Israelis are upset about.
Israel justifies its demand for a stake in the Syrian pie by focusing on this fourth zone, and its supervision by Iran. Hostilities between Israel and Iran date back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Iran altered the previously friendly relations with Israel by ceasing ties with the latter and openly supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. More recently, Israel has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, which, it claims, threatens its existence and stability in the Middle East. Additionally, Israel regards Iran as an enemy for its support of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and the Lebanese party Hizbullah.
As part of its campaign to realise greater Israeli control of Syrian territory, the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was dispatched to the USA to warn US President Donald Trump of ‘the imminent threat of Iran’s presence in Syria’. In addition, Netanyahu himself flew to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin while the latter was holidaying in Sochi. Netanyahu informed Putin (and the world) that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Israel values its relations with Russia and recognises the strategic position of Moscow in the Syrian civil war. With this trip, Netanyahu hoped to gain Russian support to curb Tehran’s role in Syria in the future.
The Russians, trying to appear unfazed by Israel’s warning and requests against the ‘threat of Iran in Syria’, have not fully given in to Israel’s demands, but have made certain concessions. Although not agreeing to the extension of the buffer zone, they have, for example, propose a deal that Israel will find beneficial: keeping Iranian troops away from the south of Syria, and preventing them from maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. The deal might not fully give Israel what it wants, but effectively accedes to part of Israel’s request.
Despite being slightly rebuffed by the Russians, and not evoking sufficient American interest, the Israeli campaign will not easily back down, with Netanyahu hoping to insert Israel into the de-escalation deal, and expanding the Syrian territory that it controls. In July this year, a ceasefire deal brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan was widely welcomed by Israel. This deal – also hailed by Jordan – covers parts of Dar’a, Quneitra and western Suwayda, and is set to continue to secure the Jordanian border, which closed in June 2016. Under the deal, groups fighting against Iranian and Syrian forces were asked to cease fighting in the area by their US backers. They have also been asked to return artillery and anti-tank missiles. Israel prefers this agreement to the Astana deal, which recognises Iran as the monitor of areas along the Jordanian border, Quneitra and Dar’a. This zone seeks to create more of a de-militarised zone than a de-escalation zone, warding off the presence of any military hardware (belonging to regime or opposition groups) in the south, thus lifting the threat of an attack on Israeli assets in the Golan.
The Syrian civil war has been characterised by a complex web of involvement by and relations between foreign states. Despite a myriad of attempts to find a solution to the crisis, only the Russian-sponsored Astana (Kazakhstan) process has, thus far, yielded any results – modest as they might be. One of those outcomes has been the de-escalation deal that seeks to create ceasefire zones monitored and supported by Russia and Iran – which are major players in the war and have strengthened the Asad regime, as well as Turkey – which has backed the Syrian opposition. Israel sees in the de-escalation plan an opportunity to advance its own interests – particularly the extension of its territorial control further into Syria – in addition to its occupation of the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. It is using the fact of Iran’s role in the plan to, first, attempt to stymie Iran’s involvement in Syria for the future, and, second, to attempt to justify its own bid for control over Syrian territory. It seeks to thus lay the foundation for a long-term plan of expanding territory beyond Golan into Syria.
Although the USA usually readily supports Israel’s ambitions in the region, it is not an architect of the Astana deal, and has to defer to Russia. It is unclear whether the latter will ultimately give in to Israel’s requests. Although Russia and Iran are currently allies, Moscow is also concerned about Iran’s role in the region being elevated through a resolution in Syria, and might be willing to allow Israel to fulfil some of its ambitions in the interests of keeping Iran in check. Support from Russia and the USA on the issue will also embolden Israel to continue building settlements on Palestinian lands.
Hassan Rouhani’s landslide victory in the Iranian presidential election on Friday, 17 May heralds a continuation on the country’s path towards global re-engagement, both on a popular level and in terms of economic and political cooperation. However, the intense campaign that preceded the election points to increasing tension between state institutions such as the presidency, and parallel institutions, including the Revolutionary Guard and parts of the clerical establishment, especially since presidents have previously frequently become more confrontational towards such institutions at the end of their tenures, as evidenced by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fallout with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2011.
With a turnout of nearly seventy-five per cent, Rouhani’s victory, by a margin of twenty per cent over his nearest competitor, principlist cleric Sayyed Ibrahim Raisi, suggests an evolutionary shift within the calculus of Iranians. Although many citizens had previously abstained from voting as it had been seen as endorsing the system, Iranians, in particular those from younger and urban backgrounds, are increasingly turning to the electoral process to shape the country’s politics. Further, most citizens prefer non-violent, incremental changes to Iran’s governance structures. Trita Parsi observes that in most Iranian elections the system outsider has had the most appeal – Khatami in 1997 and Ahmadinejad in 2005 are examples – because Iranian citizens see elections as the only means of altering the country’s political trajectory. Significantly, Khamenei tacitly supported Raisi, especially in the weeks preceding the poll through criticisms of the nuclear deal and of Rouhani’s ‘unwillingness’ and ‘inability’ to implement a ‘resistance economy’. He also publicly confronted the administration over its acceptance of a UNESCO-developed education curriculum, which some saw as undermining gender roles, although the programme had been endorsed, with little opposition, in 2015.
Rouhani’s victory also benefited from the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal in 2015 – despite the less-than-expected foreign investment that followed – and the growth of Iran’s economy by over 10 per cent in 2016, which caused the riyal to appreciate. Fears over a curb in social freedoms if a principlist candidate were to win also influenced the poll, especially since candidates such as Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf had repressed dissent in the past.
Campaigning had been vigorous, and the candidates – especially Rouhani – crossed many ‘red lines’. The president blamed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for stunting the gains of the nuclear deal; the judiciary for its limits on freedoms; and the public news broadcaster for backing Raisi. He also offended the clergy by demanding that the largest Islamic charity organisation, Astan Quds Razavi, headed by Raisi, be subjected to tax compliance. He further accused the IRGC of crowding out private business. Raisi and Ghalibaf conversely pointed out the nuclear deal’s failings, corruption and recent increases in unemployment during Rouhani’s incumbency. This is typical of Iranian politics, where intense competition for positions increases openness, accountability and criticism, especially in electoral years. The system thus provides room for and tolerates a diversity of opinions, despite vigorous vetting of candidates.
Although most power in Iran remains vested in the Supreme Leader, the president is able to shape most domestic and economic policies through his ability to appoint staff to key institutions, and because of the power he wields in formulating these. Further, in most instances the Supreme Leader prefers to maintain an image of political insulation, and usually contours his political pronouncements in line with popular sentiment, opting to work through informal institutions to realise his preferences. Rouhani’s victory will require him to continue his attempts of increased cooperation globally. This is despite the fact that Khamenei has become disenchanted with this stance, fearing potential reforms, and will act to inhibit it. Further, although many of Rouhani’s criticisms of the IRGC, judiciary and clerical establishment in the regime were politicking, these direct and sharp criticisms and the tendency of Iranian presidents to seek to empower their office in the second term will escalate confrontation between these competing centres of power. This will especially be the case as Rouhani considers his legacy, which is important for Rouhani since seventy-eight-year-old Khamenei reportedly suffers from cancer, and it is reliably believed that Rouhani (and Raisi), wish to succeed him. Therefore, Rouhani tacitly criticised the IRGC and the judiciary in his victory speech, acknowledged his support for the popular reformist cleric and former president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), and promised to negotiate directly with the Trump administration for the removal of non-nuclear sanctions.
At a regional level, Rouhani’s victory will not drastically alter the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts, although the administration seems to prefer political solutions to both. Khamenei and the IRGC largely control foreign policy, particularly in this arena. The Iranian-Saudi cold war will likely endure, especially since the Saudi monarchy continues to replenish its military capacity, and because the Trump administration’s pronouncements have emboldened hawks on both sides. Rouhani’s victory will, however, guarantee the maintenance of the nuclear deal, and intensify the administration’s attempts to increase its economic benefits. This will be challenging, especially since the USA is unlikely to remove its ‘non-nuclear’ sanctions component, which has so far complicated efforts to invest in the country and caused its economy to remain sluggish. Rouhani will need to consider domestic measures, such as enhancing productivity and cracking down on corruption, to stimulate economic growth.
Despite Rouhani’s massive victory, he will face constraints both from Iran’s complex governance structure and regional ructions. Significantly, Raisi’s populist rhetoric, including pledges to increase subsidies and create jobs, attracted over 15 million votes (thirty-eight per cent). If Rouhani fails to fulfil his campaign promises, we will see a rise in opposition numbers, opening the doors to a principlist resurgence.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 2 March declaring Hizbullah a terrorist organisation is the latest in a string of moves by Saudi Arabia to blunt the perceived increase in Iran’s regional influence. The resolution will have dire consequences for Lebanon’s already fragmented and gridlocked institutions, but may have an effect opposite to that intended by the GCC; it could push Lebanon further into Iran’s orbit.
The GCC verdict followed Saudi Arabia’s decision on 19 February, which halted its four billion dollar aid to Lebanon’s state security institutions, and the subsequent GCC states’ ban on their citizens from visiting the country. At the heart of these decisions is the perception of increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon, especially after the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. GCC states were furious over Beirut’s decision not to endorse an Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation statement criticising attacks on Saudi diplomatic offices in Tehran in January. Lebanon’s dissociation from international actions that may interfere with its fragile sectarian balance is seen by the increasingly assertive Saudi regime as a sign of Beirut’s proximity to Iran. Saudi Arabia believes this proximity is proven by the inability and unwillingness of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to disarm Hizbullah, and by the group’s activities in Syria. Saudi officials had already conveyed these concerns to Lebanon’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, Samir Mouqbel, in January, and had indicated that Saudi Arabia might reverse its decision if Lebanon were to change course.
The Saudi move will seriously impede Lebanon’s economy, which is heavily reliant on GCC tourism, investments, and five billion dollars in remittances sent by Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf. These remittances will dry up if GCC states act against the 750 000 Lebanese workers. It is possible that the GCC will impose further sanctions on Lebanon, which will be disastrous since the country relies on Gulf support to maintain its banking sector and currency.
However, these measures may have the opposite and unintended impact of pushing Lebanon closer to Iran. Already the Islamic Republic has offered to compensate for the shortfall if Beirut officially requests assistance. Further, those most affected, ordinary Lebanese citizens, may become disillusioned with the GCC – particularly Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, the measures will have little effect on Hizbullah, which is not reliant on GCC funds for its social service, patronage or any other activities, and because this will further increase the chasm in weaponry and training between it and the LAF. The party has thus confidently criticised the GCC, suggested that GCC states were cooperating with Israel, and pointed out that the GCC decision would have a harsher impact on average Lebanese nationals.
The Saudi and GCC positions will not collapse Lebanon’s confessionalist political system, whose sectarian nature prevents strong parties from dominating political institutions. Power balancing and coalition formation are promoted through the stipulation of cabinet and government positions on a sectarian basis. Although many within the March 14 coalition – Hizbullah’s rivals – have supported Saudi Arabia and criticised Hizbullah, talks to elect a president have continued between March 14 and the Hizbullah-led March 8 coalition. Lebanese politicians benefit from the system, and fear that too strong appeals to identity politics could result in a situation similar to that which sparked Lebanon’s fourteen-year civil war in 1975. Further, global powers – including the USA and France – regard Lebanon’s stability as paramount, especially in light of the growth of the Islamic State group, and have acted to mitigate the effects of the GCC decision by offering to mediate between the two parties.
What the GCC and Saudi positions indicate is an increasing willingness – especially by Saudi Arabia – to adopt aggressive stances to weaken Iran and ensure GCC allies close ranks – as happened in January when Saudi allies severed ties with the Islamic republic. Small and relatively week states such as Lebanon and Yemen will increasingly be forced to support one or other side in this Cold War-like regional atmosphere. In Beirut’s case the risk is larger because of the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, especially with Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria. The Lebanese political establishment needs urgently to resolve its political problems, elect a new president immediately since the twenty-two month wait for a consensus candidate has imperilled much of the country’s institutions, and citizens have been forced to resort to patronage and sectarian networks to ensure the partial provision of state services.
By Afro-Middle East
The accession to the throne of Salman Bin Abdulaziz has led to a reprioritisation of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. The rise of the Islamic State group (IS) and resurgence of Iran are now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of democratic/participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with like-minded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters, such as youth unemployment, will increasingly force the regime to look inward in the struggle for regime survival.
History and foreign policy impetuses
Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the Saudi kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought and took the form of partnerships with the United Kingdom and the USA. These partnerships, together with its vast oil wealth, have enabled it to grow in strength. From the mid-2000s, Riyadh has acted more as a regional hegemon and deployed its financial and military power in the pursuit of its national interest. Although foreign policy in the kingdom is an elite-driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses disproportional influence. Domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.
Foreign policy during Abdullah’s era
Under Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia aggressively increased and diversified its bilateral relations. In 2006 and 2007 alone, Abdullah visited China, Russia, India and Pakistan. These visits were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state-sponsored discrimination. Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.
The MENA uprisings
The kingdom, however, maintained warm relations with the USA, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam had enabled Iran to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the US’s role in enabling this; Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies. The kingdom felt that the USA betrayed Mubarak, and that the US would take a similar stance if Abdullah were in that position. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were democratic Islamists. Riyadh views these groups as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior MB figures refused to support its role during the 1990–91 Gulf War.
Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013, even when Bashar al-Asad was alleged to have used chemical weapons. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase its regional and global influence. This is especially since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hizbullah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of its holding of elections. The kingdom was especially angered at not being informed about the initial US–Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future US support.
Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive and independent foreign policy. First, it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over seven hundred billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and successfully provided funding to withstand protests. The kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Hamid regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command and shared Gulf police force.
Second, Riyadh sought to reverse the successes gained by Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through supporting former regime officials, together with the UAE and Kuwait, to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, the Morsi regime was overthrown and replaced by former military head Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party in light of Islah’s links to the MB, and Saudi–Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining democratic Islamists. This culminated in the March 2014 decision, adopted by Gulf states, declaring the MB a terrorist organisation and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. Even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran by removing the Assad regime, which is closely allied to the Islamic republic. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition groups sought to distinguish between Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, supporting the latter.
Abdullah’s death: change of course?
Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. This resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the Brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole was not viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE.
The Iranian nuclear deal and rise of IS have been key influences in these decisions. The kingdom views these threats as posing a greater threat to it than that of democratic Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence.
IS on the other hand has been active in Saudi Arabia, claiming bombings on mosques frequented by Shi'a and special forces. Further, the group’s leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime because of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward more democratic Islamists, with leaders from Ennahda, Hamas and the Islamic Action Front all visiting Saudi Arabia in 2015. It has also re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party. Further, the kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm opposition groups in Syria, while in December it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni, countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic – even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus, and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troops fighting IS. In addition, in January 2016, the kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an unsuccessful attempt to stall the improving relations between Iran and Western states.
Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s reprioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were part of a ten-member Saudi-led coalition and were without initial US endorsement. The Yemeni Islah party has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground force, consisting of around 5 000 troops has since been deployed. Thus far the effort has had some successes; the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south and in recent weeks has been gaining ground in and around Sana’a. However, Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many northern regions, and will be difficult to dislodge in light of their institutional links and grass-roots support.
Salman’s renewed relations with democratic Islamists constitute tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Turkey’s president (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and the previous emir of Qatar (Hamid bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision to re-engage democratic Islamists is more the result of Riyadh’s belief that these groups have been weakened and no longer pose an immediate threat to the regime’s survival. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these Islamists possess some influence regionally, and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to those of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties, and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action. Further, US–Saudi relations have largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.
Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and reprioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen peace talks scheduled for January have already been postponed indefinitely, while the Munich truce between the Syrian regime and opposition fighters is already proving difficult to implement. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which increasingly resembles a regional cold war.
Foreign policy constraints
Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. The balance of power is influenced more by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE, for example, is more fearful of domestic Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, where the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has thus refused to finance and arm the party. Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. The UAE and Oman have important economic ties with Iran, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars / North Dome gas field. All three of these countries refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, especially since Ankara now has tense relations with Russia, and has thus offered to play a mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the Erdogan regime’s opposition to Iran’s interests in Syria.
Second, the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas prices will impede the kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. The price drop has even meant that it has had to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic programs, causing these to drop by over a hundred billion in 2015 alone. Riyadh has increased levies on petrol and gas by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent, respectively, and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value-added tax with income tax soon to follow. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime.
Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However, issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the fifteen to twenty-four year old group stands at over thirty per cent, and around two-thirds of the country is under thirty. The 2016 budget allocates around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services; however, much more will need to be done, including providing employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. This is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammad bin Salman (aged thirty) and the relatively young Muhammad bin Nayef (aged fifty-six) as deputy crown prince and crown prince, respectively. The kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult, especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes.
Things however can change quickly, and chances for miscalculations abound, especially in light of the complex regional and international alliances involved. Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the allegiance council did not unanimously endorse the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as deputy crown prince and de facto prime minister. However, for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.