Re-scoping the Saudi-Iran divide
The Saudi-Iran divide is only now getting main stream attention, however this divide is not a new one in the region. The two powerhouses have constantly been seen by other Arab countries as decision makers and major players in local politics be it in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other GCC countries, mainly Bahrain and Yemen.
As this divide now gains larger international coverage, most outlets are projecting the confrontation with a religious Sunni-Shia undertone. However, if we were to learn anything from history and previous power struggles in the region we would know that we need to get the magnifying glass away from these two countries on their own, and look at larger regional changes that would have exacerbated this divide.
The invasion of Iraq, Russia, and the Arab spring
The Middle East has always been an area of contention between Russia and the United States and their respective coalition forces. During the Cold War, the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, was always seen as a Soviet dominion. The USSR supplied most Arab countries with arms, economic advice, and many countries even implemented left leaning economic policy and even went as far as attempting a “United Arab Republic” a sovietesque style union between Syria and Egypt that quickly fell apart.
Since the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring, Russia’s regional influence has seen a massive decrease, and Moscow has also been dealing with international backlash since the annexation of Crimea. Conversely, the US and its allies have either increased influence in the post- Arab Spring countries, or those countries have become so defunct that it has made them inconsequential to “spheres of influence”. It would seem though, that Russia has had enough of this loss of power and has decided to reclaim some of its territory by directly interfering in the developing story of Syria. Though what the military or political goals of Russia beyond re-establishing its influence still remains unclear.
Failure of American policy in Syria and Iraq
The intervention of Russia in Syria however cannot be taken outside the context of the failure of American policy in Syria and Iraq. With a staunch stance and unwavering support of the “Assad must go” strategy, the US has seen defeat after defeat, be it the failure of their initiative to arm “moderate” rebels, or its failure to properly train an Iraqi army, both of which have undoubtedly facilitated the rise of ISIS.
This resulted in a stalemate in the Syrian crises, allowing the Russians to waltz in under a military vacuum.
Russia, contrary to the US, also has much less limitations on having troops on the ground or being able to have strategic influence over military action. This is a result of both the fact that the Syrian government is indeed an ally, and simply because it does not have to face domestic pressures due to past failed involvement in the region.
Developments in Iraq
American policy in Iraq has also drastically changed. The US was working close with Kurdish peshmerga forces that were largely successful in pushing out ISIS elements from territories it had held in northern Iraq and Syria. However, these battles came at a large cost of life and Kurdish determination to fight for territory beyond their governed lands at such a high cost is no something taken lightly.
The rise of power of Kurds in Iraq and Syria so close to the southern Turkish border has also left Ankara, a close US ally, unhappy as Turkey has consistently been dealing with Kurdish insurgency since 1978.
These two points has left the US looking for another ally that can help reorganize Iraqi forces and assist in pushing out ISIS: enter Iran.
Iran has long been supporting Shia militias in both Iraq and Syria via Lebanese Hezbollah. The involvement of these militias has raised questions of religiously motivated crimes and even massacres as ground in Iraq was reclaimed from ISIS. The involvement of these militias also raise numerous questions on the legitimacy of the government in Iraq and its ability to control what is happening on the ground. This has been highlighted by reports of stand offs between the Iraqi army and Iranian backed militias. However, these militias don’t seem to have limitations on resources, and their involvement provides the US with enough plausible deniability and something to talk about besides their previous failed policies.
So what about Saudi Arabia?
It is this involvement of Saudi Arabia in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain which lends this divide it’s sectarian undertone. In all cases Saudi Arabia has supported Sunni governments or actors, including extremist Sunni groups affiliated with ISIS, in the face of or Shia revolts/militias, be it Houthi rebels in Yemen, or Shia protesters in Bahrain.
Saudi’s questionable interference in regional affairs coupled with its oppressive domestic policies, including the lack of woman’s rights and an over reliance on capital punishment, have left the US and its allies like the UK in a tough spot of continuously trying to justify a positive relationship with the Kingdom amidst domestic pressure.
Of course, this is not yet enough for the West to terminate an alliance which helped end the OPEC embargo of 1973 (which Iran and Saudi Arabia supported) and the US, Canada, and the UK continue to support Saudi in the international scene as well as supply the Kingdom with weapons, fuelling its intervention in Yemen.
Bringing it all together
With all this happening it would be naïve to think that the Saudi — Iranian divide is anything but another move as international and local powers seek to remedy the rise of extremism in the region and set a safe course for recovery post defeat of ISIS.
After American failure in Syria it is now clear that the situation will not be resolved without A Multi-lateral agreement between government and rebel forces. The US and its allies will not, under any circumstance, shed their stance and stand in support of a dictator who has committed atrocities against his own people. Russia’s involvement in the region provides a convenient counter balance which allows the US to save face should multi-lateral talks begin.
Turkish renewal of aerial bombardments of Kurdish forces within its borders brings up the question if this was a move of appeasement to Ankara as the US reshuffles its alliances in Iraq and Kurdish forces start playing a smaller role in the fight against ISIS. This coupled with improved relations between Iran and the US following the nuclear deal, and news of Saudi Arabia ending domestic energy subsidies hinting at future economic woes begs the question, is Iran the US’s new best friend?