The Saudi dilemma

More than 20 people were killed in Saudi Arabia on Friday. The attack happened in the Saudi Eastern Province where Shiites dominate the population. It is the first attack to be claimed by the Saudi branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Similar to elsewhere, ISIL is directly targeting Shiite Muslims. The timing of the attack is significant, given the recent activism in Saudi foreign policy on Syria. After the accession of the new monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia declared Iranand’s increasing influence in the region a key strategic threat. Accordingly, Iran is now a threat to Saudi Arabia in three zones. The first is Syria, where Saudi Arabia is now actively combatting to defeat the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The second zone is Yemen. Saudi Arabia has organized several air attacks to stop Iran-backed Houthi groups in Yemen, a key geography for Saudi national security. The third zone is the Gulf. Iranand’s influence in Bahrain, for instance, is again critical for Saudi Arabia. Shiite activism in Bahrain is rapidly affecting the Saudi Eastern Province, where Shiites dominate the population. In the early phases of the Arab uprising, thousands of Shiites in the Eastern Province protested the Saudi regime. The Saudi regime spent a large amount of money persuading the people there but did not refrain from using organized violence to suppress the rebellions in the Eastern Province.
The Saudi strategy to contain the Iranian influence is two-pronged. The first part is conducting a very active foreign policy strategy on Iran, even taking part in a war, if necessary. In Yemen and Syria, the Saudi government is now part of the struggle. The second leg requires alliance-building with other states like Turkey and Qatar to counterbalance Iran. As a matter of fact, Turkey officially supports the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen that was created to stop the Iranian-backed Houthi groups.
However, the Saudi strategy faces a major dilemma. The Saudi efforts to stop Iran naturally help radical groups, particularly in Syria. So the question is: Is that good for the Saudi regime in the long run? The logic of the Syrian struggle is very simple now: The weaker the Assad regime becomes, the more radical groups like ISIL gain strength. Today, ISIL runs more than half of Syrian territories. The Syrian-Iraqi border has become obsolete as ISIL rules both sides of the border as a transnational entity.
Are the Saudis sure that ISIL-like groups will not threaten them in the long term? The question is also applicable to Turkey in the same way. The Friday mosque attack should be seen as an early warning bell for the Saudis. The anti-Assad coalition has no common ground except for being anti-Assad. Therefore, in a post-Assad Syria, radical groups like ISIL are likely to target neighboring countries.
There is a missing point. ISIL-like radical groups have no special interest in Syria. Their ideology is a global one that requires activism everywhere. Their presence in Syria is due to the war in that country. A detailed perusal of ISIL documents would quickly show that the group has plans for the Saudi regime and Turkey as well. Many ignore the fact that ISIL is a global phenomenon linked to similar groups that are active in a large geography, from Afghanistan to Nigeria.
So, what is the guarantee for Saudi Arabia and Turkey that ISIL-like groups will not target them in the long term? The cost of weakening the Assad regime is the consolidation of ISIL-like groups in Syria and even in Iraq.
There are two naandiumlve lines of thinking on this issue. The first argues that ISIL-like groups have no long-term capacity to survive in Syria. The second argues that those radical groups differ among themselves and there are also moderate ones. These two arguments are largely, though not completely, illogical.
The Saudi strategy towards Iran thus has an embedded dilemma. However, this dilemma is also applicable to the Syrian policy of many other states. Countries like Turkey are making a truly huge mistake, for their short-term successful strategies are creating long-term problems.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman