“It is not the deal itself that concerns us; it is the package deal that might be linked to it.”
That’s how one high-ranking official from a Persian Gulf Arab state explained to me his country’s view about the accord to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. The potential “package deal” that this official spoke of refers to widespread fears that the nuclear agreement will herald a historic rapprochement between the United States and Iran at the expense of Washington’s traditional allies in the region, especially the Gulf states.
The official’s remark sums up much of the mood in the region. Diplomats and analysts suspect the deal will embolden Tehran — now on its way to becoming a respected member of the international community and a potential ally of America — and will enable it to play an even more assertive and belligerent role in the Arab world. As a result, all eyes seem to be on one country as the next stage of increased hostilities: Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already hailed the agreement as a “great victory” for Iran, indicating that it will help Tehran support “just causes” in the region with “greater momentum.” The fears of Iran’s opponents have been exacerbated by provisions in the agreement that stipulate that the U.N. arms embargo on Iran will be lifted in five years and that sanctions on its ballistic missile program will be lifted in eight years — even Iran’s notorious Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who has personally helped spearhead the offensives of Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria, is in line for U.N. sanctions relief.
For several years, Syria has been the most visible theater of a bloody proxy war between two loose blocs led by Riyadh and Tehran. Regardless of what path the region’s rivals take next — diplomacy or an even bloodier war — Syria will be at the heart of it. Remarkably, the new dynamics might also lead to a significant strategic realignment within the anti-Iranian Arab bloc.
The economic aspects of the Iran agreement could spur greater dialogue between the Gulf Arab states and Tehran. Both sides stand to benefit economically from this opening; Washington pressured the Gulf states over the past 12 years to tighten the economic screws on Iran, even though reduced trade ran against their interests. The resumption of centuries-old trade will be good news for both sides, and they will undoubtedly reach out to each other to discuss regional issues such as Syria, Yemen, and the threat of the Islamic State.
At the same time, however, each side will likely increase support for their respective proxies in Syria and elsewhere. Both sides have constituencies that expect them to do more, as Assad not too subtly indicated.
The Iran agreement’s most profound effect on the Syrian war may be to push Riyadh into an alliance with Turkey and Qatar, two countries with which it has long had bitter disagreements over the role of Islamist groups in the region. Since 1995, the Doha-Riyadh relationship has been defined by mutual suspicion and rivalry, as the Saudis have accused the Qataris of supporting Islamist opposition inside the kingdom, conspiring to instigate an uprising, and at some point joining the Iranian-backed coalition in the region by moving closer to Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and Hamas. After the Arab Spring, the neighbors’ relationship became even more toxic as Saudi Arabia aligned with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to shape regional politics and undermine Qatari interests across the region. Turkey, meanwhile, emerged as a prominent supporter of the former Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt — a government that was eventually toppled with significant Saudi support.
These countries, however, are increasingly burying their differences in order to work together against their common enemy in Syria. A Saudi-Turkish alliance has been in the making since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Saudi King Salman in March. According to informed sources, the Saudis told Erdogan that Riyadh would “fully support any Turkish step in Syria or Iraq.”
Saudi Arabia also reversed its previous opposition to support for Islamist and jihadi groups in Syria, shifting gears to win the assistance of groups backed by Qatar and Turkey. Qatar, which had dialed back much of its regional support for Islamists after previously striking a deal with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, then resumed support for its clients in Syria and helped establish the Army of Conquest, which made a string of gains against the Assad regime in northern Syria.
Besides contributing funds, Saudi Arabia has pushed for a serious effort to unify the rebel brigades: In the first meeting after King Salman took office, the Saudi delegate in a meeting of the oppositions’ backers said that the kingdom would organize a conference and would invite all rebels “without an exception.”
Delegates, including Emirati officials, first pushed for excluding Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, but dropped their demands in subsequent meetings. The Americans also expressed discomfort with the proposition, and representatives of some Western countries insisted that the Assad regime was on shaky ground and that quickly increasing support could cause the situation to spin out of control. The UAE did not clearly indicate whether it supported the new Saudi-backed formula, leaving Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in one camp.
On the ground, the Qatari-Saudi-Turkish bloc is still taking shape. Despite Riyadh’s cooperation with Ankara and Doha, the new coalition has yet to take full effect because Saudi Arabia has mostly relied on its two allies to do the job. The recent Turkish election has also slowed the effort of tilting the balance on the ground.
Riyadh still has to consider the interests and priorities of its allies in the UAE and Egypt, both of which oppose any real rapprochement with Islamists. Saudi Arabia is therefore balancing between its two sets of allies, quietly pursuing what it perceives to be its interests. One aspect of this new policy has been a quiet outreach to groups beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria — a necessary step, according to Saudi officials, that will allow them to accomplish their regional priorities. Riyadh’s past policy of selective cooperation, according to one Saudi Interior Ministry official, undermined its regional standing.
The Saudi official said in a recent conversation that the Muslim Brotherhood was not always perceived as a threat in the kingdom and that it could provide a “strategic depth” in certain places, such as in Syria, Yemen, and even North Africa. The increasingly assertive role of Saudi Arabia in the region makes it hard to be selective when looking for allies — in Yemen, for example, its need for ground forces and social networks make the al-Islah party, a coalition of tribal, Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi blocs, an asset.
At the same time, the official signaled that this new policy is realigning Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Arab countries across the region.
“The influence that Qatar has made since the Arab Spring can be put to use if Saudi Arabia works with them closely,” he said. “The Egyptians’ foreign policy in Iraq and Syria are in sharp contrast to our policy. They’re much closer, if not identical, to Iran’s position there. Officials here know this.”
The Iran deal will speed up this remarkable strategic shift in the way Saudi Arabia conducts its foreign policy. Regardless of its opinion about the nuclear deal, Riyadh will find it vital to prevent Tehran from seizing the momentum to propel itself to an even larger regional role. In the coming weeks and months, each side will probably attempt to prove they are a regional power to be reckoned with. And so, whatever happens next, the situation in Syria will get worse before it gets better — if at all.