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The Ajami Blog | Ill Wind: Saudi-Iranian Conflict Buffets Arab Spring


25 Apr 2012 00:53Comments

Rallies in support of and against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Homepage: Composite image of Bahrain security forces member and Formula One racecar. Source: Shafaqna/Shia International News Association.)

Rasha Elass covered the Middle East for Reuters and The National, among others. Her reportage on Islam has been recognized by the Cornell Religion Reporter award committee. She is currently writing a memoir about Syria, where she was born. Ajami, which means "Persian" in Arabic, is a blog about the role of Iran in the Arab world today.
[ blog ] Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to vie for influence in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. In recent days, this has unfolded mainly on two fronts: Bahrain and Syria.

And the West's reaction has wavered between virtual silence regarding Bahrain and impotence in the case of Syria.

In Bahrain, Shia-led protests stirred controversy around the Formula One race that took place on the tiny island over the weekend. At least one protester was killed on Saturday, just a day before the Grand Prix.

In Syria, the situation was more dire. As 11 U.N. observers toured parts of the country, the shelling of civilian areas by the regime subsided, but only for the short duration of the observers' visit.

The Beirut-based newspaper Daily Star reported that dozens of demonstrators were shot dead on Monday by Syrian troops in Hama, on the same street where residents had greeted the observers just one day earlier.

The West's response toward the two countries was different. There was no public criticism of Bahrain, the silent acceptance of the Grand Prix's staging a tacit endorsement of the island's oppressive monarch.

By contrast, the Western attitude toward Syria was very critical, though to no discernible effect. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an arms embargo on the state, where the U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 have been killed in the 14-month-long conflict. Her call was directed at Moscow, which, along with Tehran, continues to supply the Assad regime with the weapons and ammunition Syrian troops use against civilians.

Unfortunately, this was no more than an echo of similar U.S. and E.U. rhetoric from months ago, when the conflict in Syria first began to gain momentum.

That was also when Moscow vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad for ordering demonstrators to be shot.

Back then, the Russians did not flinch in the face of the West's call to stop arming the Syrian government. And they're still not flinching.

Unfortunately, as well, Clinton did not direct her statement at Saudi Arabia, which has been quick to supply cash and weapons to the fragmented Free Syrian Army under the guise of "helping the Syrian people."

Smuggling arms into Syria does very little for the Syrian people. Many countries are on record saying this is a bad idea, including Egypt, which said it would "lead to civil war." As U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan put it, sending weapons to any group inside Syria would be "a disaster."

There is simple logic behind this.

Any armament that is light and small enough to be smuggled into Syria can, by definition, do little to nothing in the face of the tanks and heavy artillery that Syrian troops have been using in densely populated civilian areas. Smuggled arms only increase the number of illegal guns per capita inside the country, an uncontrolled danger that serves innocent civilians the least.

Already, such dangers are emerging, with reports of Saudi-inspired Salafis and foreign fighters whose allegiance lie with the the likes of al-Qaeda and militant Sunni Islam.

Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a report, "Syria: Armed Opposition Groups Committing Abuses," filled with detailed accounts of kidnappings, forced confessions, and executions. At the end of February, the New York Times published an interview with a Shia clerical student who fled from Homs to Iraq, fearing for his life. He described rebel violence against Shiites in his Syrian hometown not too different from the Sunni-Shia violence during the war in Iraq: "In the neighborhoods that are Sunni, they are kicking out Shiites and using their homes as bases and for the storing of weapons.... There's real terror among the Shiites there."

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate outcomes is that the situation in Syria is turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assad's regime has long warned that if he is ousted from power, then Syria will be condemned to sectarian violence and civil war.

By now, it is clear that Syria is no Libya, and that no Western country is willing to intervene there militarily. Assad knows this, and so he bides his time, plays cat-and-mouse with the U.N. observers, then acts with impunity.

His supporters in Moscow and Tehran must now have their feet in cold water. Assad's Syria is their ally and prime conduit to expanded influence in the region. It increasingly looks like he will remain in power, at least for a while to come.

This leaves the E.U. and the U.S. increasingly flustered, and limits them to taking steps with invisible results.

Over the weekend, the U.N. Security Council authorized up to 300 unarmed observers to join the team already in Syria. With Assad already not adhering to the ceasefire, it is not clear how this resolution can be expected to change his behavior.

On Monday, the E.U. also managed to squeeze out a half-hearted resolution that "bans luxury goods" sales to Syria. How this will save lives is a mystery.

Meanwhile, both the U.S. and the E.U. were muted about the controversy that was brewing over the weekend in Bahrain, where the F1 Grand Prix took place against a backdrop of protests -- for over a year now, a Shia-led uprising there has been pushing for more representation in the minority-led Sunni government.

Saudi Arabia, among the most Iranophobic Arab countries in the region, is loath to allow any semblance of Shia empowerment in its backyard. As soon as the Shia majority in Bahrain dared to catch a breeze from the Arab Spring and go to the streets to demand their rights, Saudi marched its troops across the King Fahd Bridge, named for the late Saudi sovereign, to the tiny island to help the Bahraini monarch suppress the uprising.

There was barely a peep about it in the Security Council, or from Washington or the E.U. Just like there was not a peep about the controversial F1 race there over the weekend.

When it comes to the delicate balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East, it seems the Saudis have it a little easier.

This truth was not lost on F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone. Asked if he would hold any more Grand Prix events in Bahrain, in spite of all the island's troubles, he said, "Absolutely. Forever."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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