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

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.

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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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