Unholy Alliance: How Syria is Bringing Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia Together

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In the new Middle East, a previously unthinkable coalition is joining up in defense of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and the status quo

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Juan Medina / Reuters


One of the iron fisted rules of the Middle East seems to be "what an Assad giveth, an Assad also taketh away." Since protests began in his country, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has lifted the emergency law, abolished state security courts, and stepped up the repression that has been a hallmark of his now 11-year rule. No one should be surprised that Syria's security forces have used violence against peaceful demonstrators. Still, if there was any lingering doubt about the nature of the regime, the 500 or more dead in the streets across several Syrian cities should be plenty evidence of its brutality.

Many smart people, in Washington and elsewhere, have long been willing to forgive the Assad family for their many sins, going back to the tenure of Bashar's father, Hafiz al Assad, who ruled from 1971 to 2000. The allure of bringing the Syrian-Israeli state of war to an end and the tantalizing possibility (a fantasy, it turns out) of breaking the Tehran-Damascus axis led observers to believe that Hafiz was capable of making peace and that Bashar was a reformer. Bashar has been tolerated, engaged, even supported in the hopes that the world could entice him, with the prospects of good relations with the West, to change. But there was never any real evidence that Damascus was genuinely interested in peace or reform.

As the world (slowly) comes to grips with the horror of Syria and the Assads, there remains a coalition of nations that appear to be acting under the belief that the Assad regime is better than what might come next. It's an odd group in the rather strange new world of the Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. For the Israelis, already reeling from the loss of a regional strategic asset -- Hosni Mubarak's Egypt -- the predictability of Assad's Syria was some consolation. Israel and Syria may be in a technical state of war, but the Syrians have scrupulously kept the armistice on the Golan Heights and it has been a long time since Syria's military posed any significant security threat to Israel. The Israelis put a premium on authoritarian stability in the Arab world, where they fear change will almost always rebound to the benefit of hostile Islamist groups. Sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it is little wonder the Israeli leadership is having serious qualms about the unrest in Syria. Assad may be an implacable foe, but he is better than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. From the perspective of the Israeli security establishment, at least Assad is doing what Hosni Mubarak should have done: using all available means to save his regime.

For the better part of the last decade, Saudi Arabia has not had very good relations with Syria. But the Arab spring has so unnerved Riyadh that King Abdallah appears willing to let bygones be bygones. In late March, when the protests in Syria were just starting to develop beyond Daraa, the King called Assad to offer his political support. In the short run at least, Riyadh appears willing to overlook both Assad's three decades-long strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia's rival, Iran, as well as Syria's growing influence in Lebanon, which comes at the expense of Saudi's own ability to sway events there. The support for Assad is consistent with Saudi strategy throughout the Arab Spring, which has included support for Bahrain's ruling family and King Abdallah's offer to Hosni Mubarak that he would make up the loss of American aid if the Egyptians undertook a major crackdown. Clearly, the Saudis regard the transformation of the region as a threat to their interests and stability and will do whatever they can to help bring the uprisings to an end.

The least surprising member of the region's pro-Assad camp is Iran. Tehran has been trying to tell anyone who will listen that the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates the righteousness of the Iranian revolution and that change in the region only bolsters Iranian interests and influence. Not exactly. So far, this has been mostly a wash for Iran. There is nothing in the Arab uprisings that suggests their instigators want to emulate the Islamic Republic; though, of course, Islamist groups may yet benefit from more open systems in the Arab world. Still, Arabs are demonstrating and dying for more freedom, not for another form of authoritarianism under the guise of theological messianism. And while change in Egypt weakens the region's anti-Iranian axis, this does not appear to augur the flowering of Tehran-Cairo ties. Both Egypt and Iran are big and important countries who maintain the pretenses of regional leadership and influence. They are more likely to be strategic competitors than partners. Change in Syria would be far more problematic for Iran. Damascus is, after all, Tehran's most important gateway to Arab politics, the focal point through which it has been able to insert itself directly into the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other regional issues. A Syria that is less hospitable to Iran would not end Tehran's regional influence and ambitions, but it would certainly be a setback for both. That's why along, with Jerusalem and Riyadh, Tehran is hoping that Bashar al Assad has what it takes to hang on.

Finally, the Turks find themselves in the awkward position of supporting their ally and partner, Bashar. Ankara was tough on Mubarak, wavered on Qaddafi until it became untenable for them to continue wavering, and has been noticeably hushed on Assad. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invested a great deal of time and energy in his relationship with the Syrian president. Erdogan, it was long hoped, would be the one guy who could finally flip Assad, bring him in from the cold, and help make him respectable. The Turks have been leveraging their much-vaunted influence in Damascus to quietly counsel the Syrians to halt the violence and undertake reform, but so far they have come up empty. Late last week Erdogan sent a delegation to Damascus - supposedly with a tough message for Assad about the need for more rapid and meaningful reform -- and Ankara has joined Washington and Brussels in condemning the use of force against peaceful protestors. These are positive developments, but Turkey's ambiguous calls for "democratization" do not include an explicit call for Assad to step down.

Don't expect Ankara to go much further than it has. The Turkish leadership likes its relationship with Syria. Erdogan's well-known rapport with Assad helps give the Turkish prime minister the Arab world street cred he so cherishes, and the close relationship with Syria is good for both Turkish business and security. Ankara may be the most reluctant member of this virtual pro-Assad coalition, but it also has a lot to lose if Assad falls. As much as it may be uncomfortable for them, the Turks are unlikely to abandon their man in Damascus.

Of course, the region's pro-Assad team is hardly a durable coalition. These countries do not exactly like one another. But the fact that they are all in their own way hoping Bashar al Assad manages to hang tough and survive demonstrates just how much these countries fear the transforming regional political landscape. Nothing creates stranger bedfellows than a common enemy: in this case, change.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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