News Analysis: Saudi-Iranian tension could negatively affect conflict in Syria

DAMASCUS, Jan. 4 (Xinhua) — The escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran against the backdrop of the Saudi execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric could negatively rebound on the efforts for establishing a peace process in Syria, analysts here said.

The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has hit a new high after the Saudi authorities executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, who was arrested two years ago and sentenced to death for fomenting dissent against the Sunni royal family in Saudi Arabia.

After the execution last week, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, bringing down the Saudi flag.

Al-Nimr’s execution also sparked waves of condemnation and support between Sunni and Shiite communities in the Middle East, something analysts said could enflame an all-out Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saudi Arabia will face “divine revenge” for al-Nimr’s execution, calling it a “huge crime” and “a wrong deed.”

Also, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, slammed Saudi Arabia for the execution, saying that “Better than any other time, Saudi Arabia is showing its real face to the world. The dictatorial face, the criminal face, the terrorist face, and it’s doing this every day.”

The tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia was not only confined to the accusatory rhetoric.

After the assault on its embassy, Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday that it had cut diplomatic ties with Iran, a move seen by Tehran as a Saudi pretext to sever ties in a diplomatic crisis that could prolong the tension between both regional powerhouses.

The Saudi-backed Bahrain, which has seen an uprising by its majority Shiite population and was largely crushed with the help of Riyadh, also followed Saudi Arabia, announcing on Monday severing the diplomatic relations with Iran, in another step seen by observers as deepening the sectarian tension in the region.

Sudan, another ally of Riyadh, also cut ties with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) downgraded its diplomatic representation in the Shiite republic.

This tension, which is largely based on old grudges between both powers on the regional sway, could negatively impact the situation in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is hugely supported by Iran, while almost all of the rebel factions are supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi on Saturday said the execution of al-Nimr is “a crime and an assassination of the freedom of speech and human rights,” according to the state news agency SANA.

Meanwhile, the rebels’ Free Syrian Army (FSA) said in a statement on Monday that it supports the Saudi move in severing ties with Iran, saying that “With the threats of the Iranian regime to the security and stability in the region by supporting Shiite groups in the Arab region including the killing and criminal thugs of Assad and finally fomenting sedition in Saudi Arabia, the decision to cut the ties is a normal and clear response to the aforementioned actions.”

“We in the armed revolutionary forces fully support the decision by the Saudi kingdom and back any future step Saudi Arabia may find suitable to preserve its peace and security,” said the statement, urging all Arab countries to follow the Saudi lead to cut ties with Iran.

Syrian analysts expressed pessimism about the new development in the region, particularly after blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in central Iraq Monday, sparking fears of renewed sectarian strife in Iraq, which has for long been suffering from tension and tit-for-tat attacks between Sunni and Shiite people.

Maher Ihsan, a Syrian political analyst, said the new tension is “worrying.”

“It’s extremely worrying what happened on the political arena in terms of the severing of the Iranian-Saudi relations, because those powers could seek revenge from one another, and surely they will not engage into a direct war, so where will they settle their score? I am afraid they will avenge one another in other arenas, including Syria,” he said.

“Again, this country could be dragged back to the conflict zone,  from which it hasn’t even been pulled. I am afraid the poor people of Syria will keep paying the bills of others’ wars on the Syrian soil,” he lamented.

The fear of pulling Syria back was due to the new hope, which was given during recent meetings in Vienna and New York, during which superpowers and regional ones, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, agreed on roadmap to end the Syrian conflict politically.

The roadmap, which will be first implemented with a meeting this month in Geneva between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, is designed to establish dialogue, a cease fire and a new government in Syria as a prelude to broader and more inclusive solution.

While the details of the roadmap are yet to be crystalized with proper mechanism, the new regional tension is feared it could affect the renewed efforts to end the long-lasting crisis, which killed over 250,000 people and forced half of the country’s 23 million population out of their homes.

For his part, Ahmad al-Ashqar, another analyst, said the negative impact could happen in countries where there is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, such as in Yemen and Syria.

“Unfortunately, I think the repercussions of the Iranian-Saudi tension will increase, which will reflect on the Syrian crisis, because Syria has become a stage for regional conflicts. Such countries don’t need to open new fronts, while already-opened fronts already exist, meaning Syria will surely be affected by the conflict of such countries,” he told Xinhua.

He added that “despite our conviction that international efforts to establish a political solution was close, but after the recent events, the political efforts could be delayed, which means more exhaustion to the Syrian people.”

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