With the United States on the verge, once again, of military action in the Middle East, it’s important to look at the Syrian conflict as what it is: the epicenter of a widening regional conflict. The limited U.S. missile strikes expected to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons will sink the United States more deeply than ever into this turbulent quagmire. But there’s no guarantee that inaction would help the Obama administration get out or stay out. The regional players include too many American allies that are too important to U.S. interests, even though many of them are rivals and enemies of each other.
Let’s start with the Saudis, not least because Washington and Riyadh have had such close ties for so long, especially in the dark world of covert operations.
Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan used to be one of the most popular figures in Washington D.C., where he was ambassador, and for that matter in Aspen, Colorado, where he owned an enormous mansion. With a cigar in one hand and a snifter of Cognac in the other, he helped guide successive American administrations through the maze of intrigues in the Middle East, and helped create quite a few of them himself, including the arming of the Afghan mujahedeen and the complicated conspiracy that came to be known as Iran-Contra.
Since Bandar’s 22-year tenure in Washington came to an end in 2005, he has moved deeply into the shadows, and is now the head of his country’s intelligence services.
The Saudis see Iran as the single greatest threat to their security militarily (especially if it gets nuclear weapons), religiously (Shiite versus Sunni), and even territorially (by promoting unrest among the Shiite populations of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and in neighboring Bahrain). And in many respects the Syrian war is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but, of course, it’s not as simple as that.
The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him have been intimate allies of the Iranian mullahs since the 1980s. Together, Iran and Syria have trained and armed Lebanon’s Hezbollah, one of the most effective guerrilla and terrorist organizations in the world.
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