Even in a year of hyperbole, it is hard to overstate how dire Saudi Arabia’s security situation has become. It is ugly and is getting worse, and Riyadh badly needs a crisis to make it better.
Three events have left Saudi Arabia in this mess. First, Russian military forces have begun operating freely in the Middle East, unchecked by any great power for the first time in history. In the past, Russia’s southern probes have always been balanced by a rival: the United States during Yom Kippur in 1973; the British through the Qajar Shahs in Iran and in support of the Ottomans in the nineteenth century; and the Turks during the wars of 1914–18 and 1877–78 and before. But now, Russia’s only potential rivals in the area—the United States and Europe—are holding back, leaving the much weaker Saudi Arabia to balance Russia on its own.
Second, Saudi Arabia’s rivals are unified to an unprecedented degree across the Middle East. Those unchecked Russian forces are working in the field alongside Iran, and Iran is uniquely strong in the modern era. For the first time in the modern era, it is aligned with Iraq, and Iraq is aligned with Syria. The Iranian nuclear deal has furthermore given Tehran $150 billion in sanctions relief and reintegrated it back into the geopolitical mainstream without the country having had to relinquish any of its regional ambitions. The victory of Iran’s reformists in their March parliamentary elections will further accelerate the process, since it will reassure the West and solidify the deal.
Third, for the first time in history, Saudi Arabia is without a great-power protector. The United States is no longer tacitly guaranteeing Saudi security, nor endorsing its aims in regional conflicts like Syria and Yemen. The Saudis, effectively, stand alone.
That’s why Saudi Arabia needs something big to happen. A major crisis with Iran could strengthen Saudi Arabia in two ways.
First, there is a chance that it could derail the American-Iranian detente. The Obama administration has not quite reconciled itself to accepting a Middle East that is rebalanced in Iran’s favor. It hasn’t tried to persuade the public, Congress, or Washington’s national security apparatus of the value of a rebalancing, however right it may be. And as such the administration has tried to have it both ways—a rapprochement with Iran and stability—which is an impossibility.
A major Saudi-Iranian conflict could force the United States back toward Saudi Arabia, with which it has a 70-year security relationship. Washington and Riyadh have fought together against communists, Islamists, Saddam Hussein, and, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran. The Saudis must hope that in a crisis, the tradition will continue.
That is almost certainly part of the reason why, on February 4, Saudi Arabia told Washington that it was willing to send its own troops to fight in Syria. Russia responded that doing so would start World War III. As both sides know, once Saudi troops are on the ground they could easily shift from fighting ISIS to fighting Assad. And the spectacle of Saudi forces fighting alongside the rebels would deter Russian airstrikes. Here, it is worth considering how Russia reacted to its confrontation with Turkey. Russia certainly wanted no scrape with Turkey after Ankara shot down a Russian jet in November.
The United States largely stood on the sidelines during Russia’s quarrel with Turkey last fall, but Turkish forces were never actively under Russian attack. Russia treated them with kid gloves, trusting—for the moment—Turkey’s U.S. guarantee of protection. An open attack on Saudi forces might well provoke a more vigorous American response.
The other reason for Saudi Arabia to provoke a confrontation in Syria is that it would be a disaster if Assad recaptured his country. When they aren’t disintegrating, the Middle East’s four Shia states—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—are stronger than the Sunni ones. Since 1979, the Sunni powers have needed backing from the United States to stay on top of the regional order. At the moment, however, Syria is a running sore for Iran and its proxies. Hezbollah has reportedly lost upward of 1,000 fighters in the conflict, and at least four senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have died. In addition, as long as the Iran-Iraq-Syria coalition’s attention is focused on Syria, it is not focused on the Gulf. But Russia’s intervention and the latest cease-fire have started to turn the tide and it is imperative for the Saudis to prolong the war.
The lowest-cost way to keep the war going is to encourage irregular and Islamist elements, such as Ahrar al-Sham, a group with up to 20,000 fighters, to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Saudis know that, and so, in October 2015, dozens of radical Saudi clerics and scholars called for a jihad against Russian and Iranian forces in Syria. Despite Riyadh having formally banned its citizens from taking part in foreign combat in March 2014, the crown was silent.
Saudi Arabia was offered the support of such radicals once before. Osama bin Laden offered to act as the kingdom’s forward force when Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait in 1990. But the crown rejected the Afghan Arabs and turned to U.S. forces for protection instead, which enraged the radicals and ignited al Qaeda. Today, the king would be foolish to turn down their help; there are so few alternatives. After all, the United States is not about to step in, and one of the downsides of Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States has been that the U.S. focus on conventional war has prevented its clients from developing an irregular warfare capability, even when it might makes sense.
And this brings us to the second reason a crisis with Iran would play well for the kingdom. The more sectarianism increases, the more passionate, useful—and perversely, safe—the militants become. If the conflict in Syria is a religious war against apostates rather than a geopolitical scuffle, more militants will be drawn toward the conflict and away from the crown. Osama bin Laden, for example, became a problem for the Saudi monarchy only after the Soviet Afghan war had ended and his help had been spurned in the first Gulf War against Saddam. That’s why religious-themed crises with Iran are so helpful, like the one over the execution of the Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr last month. His execution was bound to provoke a backlash. Iran had explicitly warned Riyadh for years not to kill al-Nimr, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini was quick to note the “divine vengeance” that would befall the Saudis.
And so, Iranian mobs torched Saudi embassies and consulates in Tehran and Mashhad. Saudi Arabia responded by cutting off diplomatic and trade relations with Iran, and its allies Bahrain, the UAE, and Sudan have mostly followed suit. It was one of the tensest moments in bilateral relations in decades and, from a Saudi perspective, it was better than the status quo. For Iran it was not, and that is why Tehran quickly backed down.
In short, the Saudis need more crises, and they may get them. The Sunni coalition is losing in Syria and Iraq and is stalemated in Yemen: it makes sense for it to try its hand in Lebanon. On February 19, Saudi Arabia withdrew its $4 billion pledge in aid (including $3 billion for the army) from Lebanon, and the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization two weeks later. Riyadh has clearly decided—not unreasonably—that the post-2008 Lebanese state is not a worthwhile enough check on Hezbollah’s power. Saudi Arabia believes that Lebanese Sunnis could force could a fundamental rebalancing of Lebanese domestic politics and threaten Hezbollah’s monopoly on violence. In that case, far from just a bad investment, the army would have been one more force standing in the Sunnis’ way. In any case, at the moment, a crisis in Lebanon may well look like good odds.
Riyadh has been unable to derail the Iran nuclear deal or the Russian intervention in Syria, so it must take a gamble before the regional mold hardens. A deeper crisis with Iran is the best chance of forcing the Obama administration back into the Saudi camp. And even if it doesn’t work, continuing crises will increase the strength of their militants and make them more controllable. Either way, a major crisis can only help. And the status quo can only hurt.