In West Asia, surreal is the new normal

The recent deal on Syria could be jeopardised by the various conflicting alliances and interests of the countries in the region

September 18, 2013 03:25 am | Updated June 02, 2016 12:54 pm IST

Russia and the United States have shown their continuing importance to West Asia with the deal they reached over Syria in Geneva on September 14. Syria now has to remove or destroy its entire stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014, or face a United Nations resolution enforcing the agreement with the threat of force in the event of non-compliance. Yet, the deal could be undermined by the conflicting and shifting alliances and interests among all the West Asian countries involved.

At least one of the alliances or collaborations remains unlikely. Had President Barack Obama sent U.S. troops to Syria, they would have found themselves on the same side as the extreme Sunni faction Jabhat al Nusra, which has links to al-Qaeda. This prospect may not have occurred to hawkish Congressional Republicans demanding war, but veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions are very angry about it.

Among the actual collaborations, one took place in Washington when Mr. Obama — who has never been publicly supportive of the Zionist lobby in the United States and whose administration has criticised Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories — had a long conference call with, among other bodies, the lobby’s best-known group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), after which AIPAC mounted a strong but fruitless campaign asking members of Congress to vote for military intervention in Syria.

For intervention

The other alliances are only too real. Certain West Asian countries have been putting pressure on Washington to use force against Syria; Secretary of State John Kerry says there is support from Saudi Arabia for a strike, and from Qatar for foreign intervention. Various countries in the region have also offered to pay for a U.S.-led invasion of Syria.

The rulers concerned, neither propose to invade Syria themselves, nor do they seek U.N. intervention — their aims go beyond removing the Syrian regime. They are deeply troubled by the Arab awakening, which has undermined their entire sense of order in the region, with some peculiar consequences. Saudi Arabia is directing its current aid specifically to al-Qaeda allies al Nusra and not to the whole Syrian National Coalition.


Furthermore, many West Asian countries are much more fearful about Iran than they are about Syria, and particularly fear the kind of influence they think Iran might wield in the region, either on its own or through Shia movements in Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Needless to say, the West Asian monarchies and dictatorships consider the Assad government, which is made up almost exclusively of the country’s Alawite Shia minority, to be nothing but Iranian clients.

The same holds for Israel, often thought to be the greatest U.S. ally in West Asia and the strongest regional influence on Washington. Yet, this influence is not all it might seem to be; the Zionist lobby cannot control any U.S. President who is determined to speak directly to the public, especially over matters of national interest. Second, even within Israel there are significant differences between the U.S. Zionist lobby and Israeli concerns. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been uncharacteristically quiet about Syria and has asked his cabinet to follow suit, possibly because comments could put Mr. Obama off intervening. Furthermore, within Israel a wide range of views obtains. The daily Haaretz , in an editorial on September 10, states that AIPAC has every right to express its views and to lobby in the U.S., but that AIPAC is not Israel and has no right to “express Israeli policy” — or to “send others to conduct military operations, much less in the indirect service of the Syrian rebels and Al-Qaida.”

Third, the strength of Saudi Arabian influence on Washington is often underestimated. Riyadh has no organised lobby there, but it is one of the biggest buyers of U.S. weaponry — an important matter for elected officials whose seats could depend on employment levels in their own constituencies — and has extensive networks among the military and intelligence services. Furthermore, Saudi Arabian arms purchases put a proportion of oil profits back into the U.S. economy, and the oil majors have themselves long made enormous sums from their operations in the kingdom.

Factor of a democracy

It is here that the most startling confluence of concerns emerges. Israel fears that if the Syrian regime surrenders or destroys its chemical weapons, Mr. Assad will be strengthened; that in turn would help both Iran and Hezbollah, which has sent troops to help the Assad forces. Saudi Arabia almost certainly feels the same, if for primarily sectarian reasons and for fear of losing its relative dominance among the Muslim-majority countries in the region. Tel Aviv and Riyadh may want the Syrian regime removed, but they do not want a democracy instead, either there or elsewhere in West Asia, because that would bring challenges to their own legitimacy as well as public demands that they actively work towards a just and equitable solution in Israel-Palestine. In effect, the strongest potential collaboration here is that between the hardline Salafist monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the Zionist state of Israel. That might give satirists or farceurs good material, but any graphic representation of the situation would probably look like a painting by Maurits Cornelis Escher or Salvador Dalí. This state of affairs, however, could not have been invented.

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