This is Part II of an in-depth series on Syria: For Part I refer to Saudi-Backed Insurgents at Core of Syrian Uprising
(MintPress)— As dictatorships fall throughout the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran have wasted no time ensuring the new Arab regimes sympathize with their own goals. It is safe to say that regional involvement in Syria has little to do with the freedom of Syrians and all to do with personal interests.
Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari said in response to an Arab League resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down that, “[Syria] will stand firm in confronting its enemies…one can’t be an arsonist and a firefighter at the same time.”
Jaafari was referring to the role that Arab League states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have played in instigating violence within Syria while simultaneously committing similar human rights abuses against their own people. The Syrian regime has long accused regional actors of fueling the Syrian uprising.
Jaafari is correct to accuse the Arab League of “double standards,” but the issue is much deeper than a draft resolution demanding Bashar to step down; the Syrian uprising has become the next battleground in a larger war over regional leadership between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran struggles to retain influence
Saudi Arabia and Iran have maintained strained relations in a regional power struggle since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, until 2003, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq played an important role as a buffer and balance to Iran.
With Hussein gone, the once-repressed Shia majority has regained power with support from its eastern neighbor. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, influenced by Iran, denied US requests to keep several thousand troops on the ground after the 2011 withdrawal. The Daily Star of Lebanon reported that Iran backed at least three militias to increase attacks on US troops prior to the withdrawal as a warning not to stay past the deadline.
Now, Maliki has joined Iran in support of the Syrian Regime. Iran remains one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s biggest supporters around the world. The fall of Assad could threaten Iran’s spreading influence in Iraq and lead to the loss of Iran’s vital gateway to Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, believes that allowing NATO to attack Syria would be another tragedy for the Islamic world. Instead, according to Reuters, Boroujerdi said that “the interests of the Muslim people command that we mobilize ourselves to support Syria as a center of Palestinian resistance.”
Iran manifests its liberation theology through its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. According to Barbara Salvin of the U.S. Institute of Peace, “Hezobllah remains Islamic Iran’s proudest foreign policy achievement—proof that its revolution has transcended the country’s Persian identity.”
Hezbollah, a Shia-led political group in Lebanon, emerged shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution with a major focus on resisting Israeli-presence in the region. Iran utilizes Syria as a transfer route for weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas as well as a training ground for military resistance groups.
In addition to military aid, Iran maintains power in the region through support of extensive social services. “In February 2008 in Washington, Judith Harik, president of Matn University in Beirut and a veteran expert on Hezbollah, told a Middle East Institute conference on Iran that over the past two decades Iran has built 330 schools serving 700,000 students, 20 hospitals and clinics, and 550 miles of roads in Lebanon,” reports Salvin.
Losing Syria as a vital link to Hezbollah and Hamas would be detrimental to Iran, especially at a time when the country’s stability is waning in face of increased economic sanctions and a future oil embargo. British Prime Minister, David Cameron, reported that there is already growing evidence of Iran sending weapons to the Syrian regime to stop the uprising.
Iran’s power over Syria is diminishing though as the opposition movement gains support. Voice of America reported that Analyst Marou Innocent from the Cato Institute research group said, “we have seen actually many Syrian protesters begin to burn Hezbollah flags, Iranian flags.” Iran’s support may not be enough to prevent the fall of Bashar given the support protesters are getting from the Gulf region.
Saudi Arabia expands their power north
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a threat to its own power and hopes that by supporting the Syrian uprising it will weaken Iran’s influence in the region. Iran has repeatedly called for the downfall of the Saudi regime and wishes to place the holy cities of Medina and Mecca under international jurisdiction – a move that would cost Saudi Arabia over $15 billion dollars in profit each year.
Iran’s growing influence in the region particularly concerns Saudi Arabia because of its influence on Shia minorities in the region. 15% of Saudi Arabia’s population is Shia Muslims living in the oil-rich, eastern province.
The Shia population in Saudi Arabia has been historically oppressed and barred from political activity. The oppression of Shias living in eastern Saudi Arabia has led to a secular conflict resulting in escalating protests in the region over the past year.
Just last month, a protester was shot dead in a clash between Shia protesters and security forces. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent a total of 2,000 troops to Bahrain to quell the pro-democracy protests led predominantly by the repressed Shia majority there as well.
Saudi Arabia believes that Shia protests in the Gulf were instigated by Iran. The Saudis are concerned that if Iran could finance and train a group of 2,000-4,000 Hezbollah soldiers to damage Israel in the 2006 Lebanese War that Iran may be able to do the same in the Eastern Province.
By providing military support to protesters and diplomatic pressure on Assad through the Arab League, Saudi Arabia hopes to eliminate Iran’s biggest ally in the region and weaken Iran’s influence on Iraq, Hezbollah, and Hamas and protesters within the Gulf countries.
Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to provide financial and military aid to Assad and the protesters respectively. The amount of regional interference in the Syrian uprising makes the goals of the actual protesters nearly obsolete.
What’s happening in Syria may have started out with an ideological aim towards freedom and democracy, but as long as Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to use it as a proxy battleground, innocent Syrians will continue to die in the crossfire without any hope of freedom.