The Expert View: The Saudi–Iran Rift Over Syria

In the wake of the most recent fallout between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Syria Deeply gathered together a group of experts to discuss the potential consequences for Syria, both on the ground and at the negotiating table. The big question: Could this mean the end of the Syrian peace talks known as the Vienna Process?

Written byDylan Collins Published on Jan. 8, 2016 Read time Approx. 11 minutes
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Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Tehran earlier this week, after rioters stormed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Iran’s capital and set fire to the building.

Demonstrators in Iran took to the streets early on Sunday January 3 in protest over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Nimr al-Nimr was sentenced to death after calling for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family. He also served as the spiritual leader for Shiite protesters in the Sunni kingdom.

Riyadh’s cut in ties with Tehran was quickly followed by a string of similar diplomatic moves by Muslim-majority states in the region. Bahrain and Sudan both severed all ties with Iran, and the UAE reduced the number of Iranian diplomats allowed in the country.

Officials at the Pentagon, the E.U. and the U.N. have all said the split between the region’s two foremost powers – both are key backers on separate sides of Syria’s civil war – does not bode well for the recently redoubled diplomatic efforts aimed at finding a political transition in Syria.

We asked a group of our experts about the consequences of the Iran–Saudi rift for Syria and the ongoing peace process. Here’s what they had to say:

Aron Lund

Editor of Syria in Crisis, a site published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Follow him on Twitter: @aronlund

Generally speaking, the Saudi–Iranian conflict is an important driver of the war in Syria, so anything that aggravates it is bad news for Syrians.

In the specific case of the Geneva III negotiations that are to start on January 25, it’s hard to tell how important this could be. The reason is that it’s not obvious who is hurting whom more in Syria. I’m not sure they know either. Both nations are involved in Syria partly to weaken the other’s influence and both are paying significant sums to support their own allies. They can escalate even more, of course, to stick it to the other side. But they’re already putting significant effort into this and they both have other problems to manage as well, and if they had some big card left to play, I think they would have played it already.

Neither is fully comfortable with the Geneva III talks as currently envisioned, but they probably also know that the other side has reservations. So while both could certainly do a lot to undermine the peace process, it’s not clear what that would achieve, except to piss off the Americans and others who are more deeply invested in these talks.

On the other hand, this assumes that both sides approach the Syrian conflict rationally and in a calculated fashion. It’s not at all unlikely that they’ll just start to be obnoxious and obstructive on principle, refusing to sit down with the other side or trying to pull their own allies out of the talks. As I said, it’s not clear what that would achieve except to ruin a rare opportunity to infuse a ruinous war with some politics and diplomacy. But there’s definitely a lot of wounded pride and self-righteous anger on both sides, so maybe some grandstanding on Syria would play well for a domestic audience or for a regional sectarian audience. That would be a shame.

Rafif Jouejati

English-language spokesperson for the Local Coordinating Committees in Syria and the director of FREE-Syria

Follow her on Twitter: @RafifJ

In the best-case scenario, Iran and Saudi show up to the Geneva talks, set aside their differences and focus on ways to stop the bloodshed in Syria. In the worst-case scenario, Saudi Arabia and Iran show up, or don’t, and ultimately derail the process by focusing on their own conflict instead of finding ways to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

A likely case is that talks are postponed … as has happened with all prior attempts at negotiating peace in Syria. In any case, we must not forget that regardless of the Saudi–Iranian relationship, Syrian civilians are being targeted every day by the Assad regime, Russian aircraft and Iranian-backed Hezbollah soldiers.

The threat to the Geneva talks, and any peace process for Syria, is the Assad regime. It is not the Saudi–Iranian split or their proxy war in Syria – not to mention the proxy war between Russia and the West. It is the Assad regime that has left more than 300,000 dead, a quarter-million detained, and more than half the population displaced, either internally or in foreign refugee camps. While the Saudi-Iranian hostilities may have negative consequences for Syria, the real impediment to peace is the Assad regime, which has repeatedly shown that it is not serious about stopping the flow of blood. Rather, the regime, emboldened by America’s paralysis and kept alive by Russia’s military and Hezbollah’s soldiers, engages in “peace talks” and strategies to delay any final reckoning for its war against the Syrian people.

In Madaya, a suburb of Damascus, some 40,000 people are starving to death, in a now-familiar regime tactic: Lay siege to an entire community just ahead of peace talks so that “negotiations” can be overshadowed by the urgency of mass starvation. The regime engaged in similar tactics ahead of the Geneva II talks of 2014. That was when it employed the same starvation siege tactic on Homs before magnanimously allowing U.N. convoys to deliver food, then giving orders to fire on the U.N. trucks containing life-saving supplies.

If we go along with the farce that the negotiating table represents the road to peace, the international community needs to hold Assad and his cronies responsible for continuing to wage war on defenseless, starving civilians. We need to accept the irony that Russia and the West claim there is only a political solution, yet rain bombs daily on Syria under the pretext of fighting Daesh. If the road to peace is via the negotiating table, we need to ask at what point Assad, a war criminal already knee-deep in the blood of civilians, would be willing to negotiate himself out of a job, despite Russian and Iranian claims that there can be no preconditions to negotiations.

Regardless of the outcome of Riyadh/Tehran posturing, the Geneva talks need to be about Syria. The international community, having excluded Syrians from the recent Vienna talks, needs to listen to what Syrians are saying: “Stop the carnage.” If those who have the power to stop the bloodshed continue to do nothing but posture, then they are guilty of far worse than ignoring the desperate pleas of the Syrian people: They are complicit in genocide.

Christoph Reuter

Correspondent for the German news magazine Der Spiegel

I think the political process is returning to the military reality, which is that any Saudi–Iranian rapprochement at the negotiating table is as dead as it is on the ground, for the time being.

We asked some of our sources inside Syria if they’ve seen any signs of the Iranians beefing up or the Saudis sending mass amounts of weapons to their proxies, but that has yet to happen. We might see it, but not yet. This is something I’d expect to see over Yemen.

As for the negotiations, which are set to start in two weeks’ time, [the consequences] remain to be seen. I can’t imagine any conciliatory gesture by either Saudi or Iran to establish a cease-fire agreement to cool down the war. I’m very pessimistic about the political process. It’s been a great chance for Russia, with some very clever political zigzagging, to get their idea of a transitional period with Assad remaining forever embraced by the international community. They’ve been very creative.

Normally, such negotiations are meant to bridge distrust and conflict and reach a consensus. But by appointing Jordan in charge of determining which rebel group constitutes a terrorist group, these negotiations were already a dead end. Jordan would never be able to dictate any terms, and no one would be able to agree. Saudi Arabia would probably claim Bashar al-Assad’s regime is a terrorist organization. They’d say Ahrar al-Sham is fine and Jaish al-Islam is fine. The Russians would probably go as far as to declare Nour al-Din al-Zenki a terrorist group. I never imagined these negotiations would arrive to any sort of sustainable solution, otherwise the Russians would have probably vetoed it.

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to invite opposition groups to the table were a waste of a golden opportunity. Half of Ahrar al-Sham signed, and half walked out. Some bitterly complained that there were 70-something people from the civilian opposition, one more irrelevant than the other, and a rather small representation of the armed groups, who will at the end of the day decide who is legitimate to speak for and to rule people in Aleppo, Idlib, etc. Like I said, I’m very pessimistic about the current political process.

Nobody expected this execution. Everyone I spoke to thought the Saudis would keep Nimr al-Nimr as an asset. He could have been a bargaining chip. Not even ISIS would kill such an extremely important hostage. It completely contradicts their foreign policy plans.

Like in many other countries, domestic priorities often come before dealing with the rest of the world. I can’t imagine that Adel al-Jubeir [Saudi’s foreign minister] and others thought [the execution] was a wise decision, particularly when they’ve just managed to get a better seat at the Vienna table.

They say it’s Syria politics, but nobody cares about Syria. Nobody cares about what we could achieve there. For Riyadh, it was obviously more relevant to kill this Shiite cleric at the most stupid moment than to achieve anything. It seems that domestic politics, once again, trump foreign politics.

If they were trying to seek revenge for the death of Zahran Alloush, they could have done something in Syria. They could have sent more money or weapons to Jaish al-Islam to give them advantages in certain areas, instead of escalating the Shiite–Sunni gap.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Senior Advisor, Gulf State Analytics

Follow him on Twitter: @tkarasik

The Saudi–Iran confrontation is Riyadh’s way of tearing apart the Syria negotiations. Geneva was not turning out how the Kingdom wanted one iota. The mid-December Riyadh Conference didn’t produce the necessary results and Russia made sure the Riyadh Conference findings were squashed by killing terrorist extremist Zahran Alloush.‎ Now, the international community and regional powers have to approach the Syrian talks in a new way, which may take time and shove the timetable down the calendar.

The sectarian dimension is likely to up the ground war, and, to be sure, both Riyadh and Tehran will deliver more equipment to the belligerents.‎ The real bad news is that the Syrian war will likely expand in a new form back in Iraq. Saudi is making very clear their design for Anbar and those who pledge their unity to the Saudi-led Sunni military alliance will back Riyadh against Iran in various, still to be determined, ways.

Instead of negotiations, the Saudis want to use force to guarantee Sunni conclaves in the Levant, to counter the Shiites and their proxies. Riyadh doesn’t want Syria to turn out like Iraq: The Kingdom is seeking to reverse this process.

Lorenzo Trombetta

Beirut-based analyst and expert on Middle Eastern politics

Follow him on Twitter: @SiriaLibano

The sudden political and diplomatic rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia will definitely affect the conflict dynamic in Syria, and will hamper international efforts to bring the main warring parts to the same negotiations table.

It seems that the mediation officially brokered by the U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura will not have any chance of success in the short and mid term. The gap between the opposition groups gathered in Riyadh and the Syrian government continues to be unbridgeable as the U.N. Resolution 2254 approved last December does not offer any concrete solution to the most sensitive issue: the fate of the Syrian central power embodied in the Assad clan and its allies. With Tehran and Riyadh at odds, the rival parties won’t now engage in any effort toward compromise.

On the ground, there could be further military escalation along the front line between the pro-Saudi and pro-Turkish armed opposition groups (AOGs) and Government of Syria (GoS) forces heavily supported by Russia and Iran. But any significant military victory could not be achieved by either party neither in the Southern nor Northern fronts. However, the truce agreements lately reached in the Homs, Daraa, Idlib and Damascus regions between radical AOGs and GoS/Iran could be negatively affected by the increasing regional tension.

Furthermore, the recent ground achievements of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) across the Euphrates between Raqqa and Aleppo regions could have a significant impact on the war dynamics in northern Syria. In particular, this could push both Ankara and Riyadh to increase their support in favor of radical militants as they would need to counterbalance the increasing influence of SDF, whose military success is partially due to the Russian air cover and U.S. logistical aid.

Nader Hashemi

Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver

Follow him on Twitter: @naderalihashemi

I don’t view this recent split between Iran and Saudi Arabia as a game changer. In fact, I strongly disagree with the notion that somehow the severing of diplomatic relations fundamentally translates into a qualitative shift with respect to the dynamics of the Syrian conflict or the prospects for peace. Iran and Saudi Arabia have already maxed out their positions over the past five years. In other words, they have already invested a maximum of their resources to their full capacity to advance their interests in Syria. I don’t see recent events changing this reality in any substantive way.

The only possible consequence recent events could have is that if we ever get to a point in the peace process (and this is a big if) where concessions have to be made and the regional powers are forced to put pressure on their respective proxies in Syria as a way of advancing the peace process, then I think this recent diplomatic fallout could have negative repercussions. There will be more reluctance, for example, on the part of Iran to pressure Assad to compromise and to agree to a possible exit of Assad as part of an overall peace plan. The same applies on the Saudi side.

In broad terms, the recent fallout only serves to entrench existing positions. These positions have long solidified over the course of the past five years. The recent deterioration of relations and antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not, in my reading, fundamentally change this dynamic.

The fallout at this stage does not completely undermine the Vienna Peace Process. Both Saudi and Iran, over a series of several meetings, basically agreed to a broad framework that was enshrined in a U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 on December 18. Now the ball is out of the court of the Iranians and Saudis and is in the court of the Syrian actors and Staffan de Mistura. That’s the next stage of the Vienna process – to try and bring Syrians from both the Assad regime and the opposition around the table. Thus, at this stage, Iran and Saudi Arabia really don’t have much to contribute. Perhaps, as a result of recent events, they might decide to take a more hardline stance when it comes to determining which Syrian rebel groups are terrorists and can have a seat at the table and which cannot.

I’m very skeptical about the Vienna Process. I think it was essentially dead on arrival because it assumes that after five years of a neo-genocidal war, and having already gone down this road before in Switzerland in January 2014 with Lakhdar Brahimi, that somehow something substantial has changed. Why should anyone assume that just because the regional and international powers have agreed to a broad framework, all of the Syrian participants in this conflict are going to meet in Geneva at the end of January, kiss and make up, and agree to some unity government and peace plan? There is little room for optimism on this point. I just can’t see why anyone would think that this would happen. If you listen to the positions of the two sides, they’re saying the exact opposite of what John Kerry is hoping for. This is really the fundamental flaw in the Vienna Peace Process – its Syrian component – which really isn’t affected by the recent conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Of course, Iran and Saudi Arabia are critical regional actors who have fueled the conflict by backing different sides, but the flaw in the Vienna process is its complete disconnect from the reality on the Syrian ground.

Some of the above interviews have been edited for length.

Top image: Iranian security stand guard to protect Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, Iran, as a group of demonstrators gather to protest the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)