Saudi Arabia appears resolute: It wants Bashar al-Assad out of Damascus. The Saudis view the fighting in Syria with the same intensity that they did the civil war in Yemen that raged in the 1960s — as a conflict with wide and serious repercussions that will shape the political trajectory of the Middle East for years to come.
The Syrian war presents the Saudis with a chance to hit three birds with one stone: Iran, its rival for regional dominance, Tehran’s ally Assad, and his Hezbollah supporters. But Riyadh’s policy makers are wary. They know that once fully committed, it will be difficult to disengage. And so they are taking to heart the lessons of another regional war that flared on their border 50 years ago.
The war in Yemen that broke out in 1962 when military leaders ousted the centuries-old monarchy and declared a republic quickly turned into a quagmire that sucked in foreign powers. The Soviet Union provided the new regime with air support. British airstrikes aided the royalists and the United States offered warplanes in a symbolic show of force.
More than anything else though, the conflict became a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, which backed the deposed imam and his royalist supporters, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who supported the new republic. Nasser’s vision of a united Arab “nation” free of Western domination and sterile monarchies resonated across the Arab world. The Saudi monarchy, wary of this republican fever on its border, decided it was not going to stand on the sidelines. The kingdom used all available means to try to check Nasser’s ambitions — but it did not send troops.
By some estimates, Egypt sent as many as 55,000 troops to Yemen, some of whom became involved in fighting well inside Saudi territory, while others were accused of using chemical weapons supplied by the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia provided money and weapons to the royalists. Yet neither side achieved its goals. Egypt’s war with Israel in 1967 led Nasser to withdraw his forces, but the Saudis were unable to turn the tide. Riyadh was eventually forced to recognize Yemen’s republican government.
Now as then, Riyadh sees the struggle in Syria as a defining moment. As the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, it perceives an opportunity to check what it sees as Iranian plans to encircle the kingdom with hostile Shiite-dominated regimes. As the war has taken on a more sectarian character, the usually reserved foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, has described Assad’s onslaught against his own people as “genocide” and Syrian lands as being “under occupation” — a clear reference to the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces.
It is no secret that the Saudis are supplying elements of the Syrian opposition with weapons. They all but admitted as much when the prince said a few weeks ago that “if the international community is not willing to do anything, then they must allow Syrians to defend themselves.”
The Saudis will use all tools available to oust Assad, while taking measures to ensure that the weapons they’re supplying to the rebels do not fall into the hands of extremists. Nevertheless, following the chemical attack on civilians near Damascus last month, the Saudi foreign minister spoke candidly about the inability of the Arab nations to put a stop to Assad’s campaign through force of arms, adding that any military effort to do so would likely involve actors outside the region. Recent suggestions that the Arab League should assemble a military force to check Assad’s aggression do not seem viable. Disagreements among the league’s member nations have prevented it from agreeing to even endorse a potential U.S. strike.
But on Monday, the Saudi Council of Ministers issued a strong statement making clear that it considered preventing another chemical attack by Assad to be only a short-term goal. In the long-term, he must be ousted.
Saudi Arabia will intensify its efforts to arm the rebels and to use its media outlets and diplomatic clout to rally support for a military strike. Although the kingdom is known for using its troops sparingly, it has done so judiciously in the past. Riyadh did, for example, send troops to Bahrain to show its support for the Sunni regime in the face of extended mass protests. Of course, Syria is not Bahrain, but neither is Saudi Arabia the same country that it was in the 1960s, when it failed to achieve its goals in Yemen.
The oil-rich kingdom of today wields far greater influence than it did half a century ago. There is no question that it will wield that influence forcefully, supporting the rebels with guns and diplomacy as it struggles to outmaneuver Iran, outflank Hezbollah and oust Assad.
Fahad Nazer is a former political analyst with the Saudi Embassy in Washington.