By Tom Marin – Vicki Davis – MG Paul Vallely US Army (Ret.)
In contrast to the international and Arab response toward Qaddafi, the Arab states have hesitated to adopt an assertive stance against Assad. Yet five months and two thousand dead later, different voices are starting to emerge: first, the joint statement by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which called for Syria to stop “the lethal oppression of its citizens,” and later the Saudi King’s statement, unusual for its severity, which declared that what is happening in Syria “is unacceptable to Saudi Arabia, which demands an end to the killing machine.”
This statement testifies to Saudi Arabia’s positioning itself against the radical front led by Iran – after it previously did so in Bahrain – as it understands that the events in Syria have reached a critical level that may tip the balance against the Assad dynasty. This joins Saudi Arabia’s adoption of a more assertive stance since the start of the uprisings in the Arab world and its attempt to redraw the map of regional alliances in accordance with its interests.
King Abdullah, who until now watched the regional upheaval from a distance, is at present eager to see Assad fall, if only because this would make Iran lose its primary ally, undermine the radical axis, and give Saudi Arabia the chance to lead a Sunni camp that is larger and more consolidated than in the past, should the Sunnis, who are the majority, rise to power in Syria. Until now, Saudi Arabia has failed to extricate Syria from Iran’s embrace and create a cohesive anti-Iranian front comprising pro-Western Sunni states.
The current protests in Syria give Saudi Arabia an extraordinary opportunity to realize this drive.
Although Saudi Arabia borders on some of the most extreme areas of conflict in the Middle East, it has to date preferred to neutralize these risks to its national security by avoiding overt use of military means and leadership-based activity. Diplomacy and cold cash were its preferred methods. Since the beginning of the Arab spring, the aging Saudi elite has started to understand that within a few years, it may find itself in very different political surroundings in which on the one hand vassals slowly become citizens with equal rights, and on the other, sectarian confrontations and instability grow. In its view, the Kingdom’s traditional means to shape its strategic environment no longer suffice, and thus it must shed its relative passivity in order to overcome national security threats and even, if necessary, attempt to lead the Arab region.
In this context, Saudi Arabia is doing its utmost to prevent Egypt from forging closer ties with Iran. The concern in Riyadh is that the “new” Egyptian leadership will lean more towards Iran, in part to placate the masses inclined this way. In the months following Mubarak’s fall, voices in Cairo were calling for renewed diplomatic ties with Tehran.
Senior Iranian officials warmly greeted the calls in Cairo for a clean slate in relations and went so far as to say that Egyptian resistance to Israel and “the adoption of the model of the Islamic Revolution” would create a common denominator between Egypt and Iran. In addition to assistance to the tune of $4 billion designed to help the Egyptian economy “float above water,” Riyadh also dusted off ideas on a series of joint ventures to strengthen bilateral ties, including an old proposal to construct a bridge over the Straits of Tiran to connect the two nations.
While it attempts to close ranks in the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia is also trying to bring Jordan (and maybe Morocco) into a bloc of monarchies in order to prevent reforms and perhaps, as Morocco’s Kings has started to do, establish the separation of powers and edge towards constitutional monarchies. Riyadh, seeking to inoculate the monarchies against possible dangers to their stability, is expected shortly to lead negotiations with Jordan in order to include the latter in some manner or another in the exclusive Gulf Cooperation Council club, despite the reservations of some member nations. Saudi Arabia has also given Jordan $1.5 billion.
It is unclear to what extent Saudi Arabia’s declarative assertiveness vis-à-vis Syria is backed by substantial support of the Syrian protest movement (Riyadh has for some time supported the Syrian opposition), but it certainly serves as an Arab and Islamic seal of approval for steps that have not yet been taken. Yet despite the positive contribution to consolidating an anti-Iranian camp, Abdullah’s efforts are liable to decrease his freedom to maneuver, both at home and abroad.
He will find it hard to rebuild his relations with Syria should Assad and his cronies stay in power. Is the king hoping to deflect criticism aimed at him? Perhaps!!! However, should the protest come knocking at his door, he will be hard pressed to explain why he hasn’t implemented his own recommendations. Assad’s possible fall is liable to be another domino in a process that ultimately leads to the Kingdom itself.
In order to back up his declarations (called “historic” by the Saudi press), the King recalled his ambassador for consultations, a move that may give legitimacy to other states to intensify the pressure on Syria. Indeed, a day after King Abdullah’s speech, Bahrain and Kuwait – the two Gulf States closest to Saudi Arabia – announced they too were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus to protest the violent suppression of the demonstrations (thus joining Qatar, which had done so previously). The King’s speech has already generated a number of government-sponsored demonstrations in the Gulf against the Syrian regime and harsher critiques of Syria in the Sunni Arab world. Abdullah may also be paving the path for a change in America’s hesitant policy and give President Obama an opportunity to toughen the tone about the continuing massacres.
What prompted King Abdullah’s response at this time? The assertive position vis-à-vis Syria has to do with the King’s anger at the continuing killing of Sunnis during the sensitive period of Ramadan, especially among tribes close to the Kingdom, and possibly also his frustration at having failed to promote a behind-the-scenes deal with Assad to restore calm. Saudi Arabia’s firm stance on Assad may be understood as an admission of its inability to affect the direction of events, in Lebanon as well as Syria, or as recognition that the balance is now, more than in the past, tilting in favor of the Syrian protesters. According to this rationale, Saudi Arabia sat on the sidelines until now in order to see which way the internal Syrian pendulum would swing. Abdullah was also slow to act because his concern of an Iranian reaction and uncertainty about America’s policy on Assad, but he changed his position because of the emerging ethnic nature of the protest.
King Abdullah is hoping that this step will distance him from Assad, understanding that the Alawi minority regime (a heretical minority, because of its leanings to the Shi’a) has been significantly weakened and may even collapse, and that Saudi Arabia must prepare itself for such an eventuality.
This is a dramatic step, certainly for King Abdullah who is usually quite restrained, and has the potential to generate a new direction for Saudi Arabia in the Arab and Islamic world. It is not distress about human rights violations that is at the center of the King’s concerns; therefore, there is no contradiction between his support for the Syrian protests and the help he extended to suppress the protests in Bahrain. Rather, considerations of balance of power and ethnic rivalries are intertwined in Saudi “activism”.
Since the foundation of the Sunni-Shia schism is based on the lack of a “will” or “directive” by Muhammad in regards to a clear succession of Islamic religious leadership, we should understand two of the core differences of the Sunni and the Shia sects as well as King Abdullah’s development of his “essence of being”, his life experiences, as he ascended to the throne.
With over 85% representation, the majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni who believe the traditions that were laid down by the prophet Muhammad and his companions as well as other common people in the history of Islam are to be followed. Whereas, Shia with representation of about 15% of Muslim community, with the majority of that population residing in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Pakistan and India, and are also the largest religious denomination in Lebanon, believe that only the traditions of Muhammad and the family of the prophet are to be exclusively followed.
These views directly correlate to the differences of how the Sunni and Shia view the role of the Imam. For the Sunni, the Imam is the elected leader of a congregation in the worship of Islam and can also be scholars that give guidance to the community from the four (4) Sunni legal schools. Whereas the Shia believes that the Imam is chosen by God and incorporates many aspects of deity worship as the Inman is free from committing any sin.
In his book, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: Leader of Consequence, Rob Sobhani noted that he received formal religious education and spent a long period of time living with the Bedouin people of his homeland in order to learn and understand traditional Arab values. As an adult and member of the Royal Family, he was appointed to a major role in his country’s homeland security, becoming head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard which provided security for the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, the royal family, and protecting against strategic threats to the House of Saud. His security force consisted of tribal militia from the Bedouin population. Although he is the first Saudi King to visit the Vatican and committed to advancing education, we should make note of the statement he made in addressing the 19th Arab League summit in March 2007:
“The first step on the path of salvation is the restoration of confidence in ourselves and in each other. Once confidence is restored, it will be accompanied by credibility. And if credibility is restored, then the winds of hope will blow. And when that happens, we will never allow any forces from outside the region to design the future of the region. Then no banner other than that of Arabism will hover over Arab land.”
Based on the current events in Syria, Egypt, and Libya, and the differences that have grown through the years from the Sunni-Shia schism, King Abdullah, as The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, could very well be viewing the current situation at his “moment” in history as indicated by his statement during Ramadan:
Jeddah, Ramadan 8, 1432, Aug 8, 2011, SPA – Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud directed a statement to his brothers in Syria, including the following:
- “In the name of God the Merciful”;
- “And prayers and peace be upon His Messenger and his family and companions”;
- “To our brothers in Syria, Syria of Arabism and Islam”;
- “Peace, mercy and blessings of God be upon you”;
- “The repercussions of events in sister Syria resulted in the loss of large numbers of martyrs, whose blood was shed, and other numbers of wounded and injured”.
“Everyone knows that every sane Muslim and Arab or others are aware that this is not of religion, values, or ethics. Shedding the blood of innocent people for whatever reasons or justifications will not find a reassuring opening that can enable Arabs, Muslims, and the whole world to see a glimmer of hope except through activation of wisdom by the Syrian leadership and carrying out of its historic role in a crossroads that only Allah knows where it leads to”.
“What is happening in Syria is unacceptable to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The event is greater than can be justified by reasons, but rather the Syrian leadership can activate quick and comprehensive reforms. The future of Syria is between only two options: either it chooses wisdom willingly, or drifts into the depths of the brotherly Syrian government and people know the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s positions by it in the past.”
Today, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands before its historical responsibility towards her brothers, demanding the stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed, use of reason before it is too late, introduction and activation of reforms that are not entwined with promises, but actually achieved so that our brothers the citizens in Syria can feel them in their lives as dignity, glory and pride. In this regard, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces the recall of its ambassador for consultation on current events there.”
An attempt to stop Iran and consolidate a Sunni front as a counter-force to Iranian influence. The fall of Assad would be the best outcome for Abdullah, second only to the fall of the Islamic republic itself, even if he understands, as Tarqi al-Faisal said, that “Assad will fight till the last Syrian standing.” Either way, the Kingdom seems more ready than ever to harness its not inconsiderable economic and political assets to tackle Iran’s regional ambitions.
If the Kingdom moves forward in taking action, we must consider how the dynamics of these events and the very nature of the two belief systems of the Islamic World and the roles of China and Russia affect the security of the United States and how our military and emergency responders are prepared to respond to any critical event that emerges, both foreign and domestic, from these geo-political forces that are exemplifying many similarities to the combination of forces of deity worship, imperialistic forces, and fascism that we faced once before in our history. And to further understand these dynamics and the true nature of this emerging situation, our Congressional and military leaders should review and understand the intelligence gathered in the field by both William Buckley and John O’Neill. They will be “shocked” and “surprised” to find out that many of the warnings of these two heroes have come true.