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Sunday, April 8, 2012
Syria As Prologue
The uprising could be the sign of even bigger battles to come in
the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
BY ROBERT HADDICK
Saudi Foreign Minister Saoud el-Faisal with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Turkish government hosted a conference last weekend in Istanbul to discuss
possible international responses to Syria's budding civil war. The conference
attendees, including the United States along with dozens of other countries and
organizations, called themselves the "Friends of Syria" and declared
open support for the rebels fighting the Syrian army. The Friends also announced
substantial financial support for the rebellion, including $100 million --
pledged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- to pay
salaries to the fighters, a direct inducement to government soldiers to defect
to the rebellion. For its part, the U.S. government pledged an additional $12
million in humanitarian assistance to international organizations aiding the
Syrian opposition. This assistance will include satellite communications
equipment for rebel fighters and night vision goggles. Attending the
conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said discussions were occurring
on "how best to expand this support."
broad and growing international support for the Syrian rebels is no doubt
motivated by several concerns. On a humanitarian level, Bashar al-Assad's
security forces are now suspected of killing more than 9,000 civilians over the
past year. From this perspective, non-lethal assistance to the opposition seems
the least the international community can do to help civilians cope with the
widespread disorder inside the country.
a more practical level, leaders like Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, host of the Istanbul conference, undoubtedly fear population
displacement and cross-border refugee flows as a result of the fighting.
Assisting the rebels may help keep them and their supporting populations inside
the country. Erdogan's support for the rebels may also be an acknowledgement
that Assad's remaining time may be limited. If there is to be regime change in
Damascus, Erdogan and other leaders will be in a better position to protect
their interests if they already have a supportive relationship with Syria's
is at the strategic level where the stakes in Syria are high and rising. The
country has become a battleground in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its
smaller Sunni-Arab neighbors against Iran. Smaller versions of the Saudi-Iran
proxy war have played out in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen. The clash in Syria
raises the intensity and the stakes to a much higher level.
the Assad regime fall and Syria's Sunni majority win control, Iran would suffer
a crushing geo-strategic defeat. Not only would Tehran lose a loyal and
well-located ally, Tehran's line of support to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon
would be imperiled. The arrival of Sunni control in Syria might also boost the
morale and material support of Iraq's anti-Iranian Sunni minority, a
development Riyadh would no doubt welcome.
proxy war in Syria provides Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and
their friends with a chance to develop and employ their emerging capabilities
in covert action, subversion, and irregular warfare. Over the past three
decades, the Quds Force -- the external covert action arm of Iran's Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- has achieved remarkable success building
up Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and supporting anti-U.S.
militias in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, Iran has demonstrated great
skill at using covert action and deniable proxies to intimidate adversaries
while simultaneously avoiding conventional military retaliation. If these
techniques are warfare's latest weapons, Saudi Arabia and its allies likely
desire to have them in their own armories.
last year's rebellion in Libya, tiny Qatar punched way above its weight when it
sent hundreds of military advisors to assist the fighters who eventually
overwhelmed Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces. Saudi Arabia has called for
arming Syria's rebels, an operation that would presumably entail many of the
same tactics Qatar employed in its successful unconventional warfare campaign
in Libya. If the Saudis are serious about fighting the proxy war in Syria, the
kingdom and its allies will have to master the irregular warfare techniques
that both the Quds Force and Qatari special forces have recently used.
emerging civil war in Syria harkens back to the Spanish civil war in the late
1930s. That ugly conflict drew in Europe's great powers and served as both as a
proving ground for the weapons and tactics that would be used a few years later
in World War II and as an ideological clash between fascism and socialism. For
Saudi Arabia and Iran, the stakes in Syria are likely even higher than they
were for Germany and the Soviet Union in Spain, which could add to the
likelihood of escalation.
is Syria's rebels that need some more escalation from their outside friends.
The Istanbul conference was one small success but the rebels will need more.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has argued that Syria's rebels will
never defeat the army, even if they are eventually "armed to the
teeth." Without more explicit external intervention, he is very likely
correct. In Libya, the rebels benefited greatly from NATO's air power, which
attacked massing Libyan security forces in their assembly areas, precluded
their open movement against rebel locations, and provided close air support for
the rebels during the final drive on Tripoli. The Syrian army faces none of
these threats as it maneuvers against rebel concentrations.
rebels should not look to the sky for the support Libya's rebels received. NATO
will not intervene. U.S. support will very likely remain minor, discreet, and
indirect. And as much as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE may want to prevail
in Syria, their air forces don't have the technical skills to do over Syria
what NATO did over Libya.
now, cash is the weapon of choice in Syria rather than laser-guided bombs.
Saudi Arabia hopes to buy the Syrian army rather than bomb it. For this war,
the kingdom's oil-financed bank accounts may be more powerful than its
squadrons of F-15 fighter-bombers.
some event triggers military escalation, Riyadh and its friends will have to
perfect the black arts of covert action and irregular warfare to fight the war
in Syria. When they master these skills, they will be catching up to where the
Quds Force has been for a long time. Syria may only be a preview of
Saudi-Iranian clashes yet to come.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 06/04/2012
-Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal