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Endgame Scenarios

Saudi Arabia v. Qatar on Syria

by PETER LEE

With all the reams of reporting on Syria, I am surprised that relatively little is written, in English anyway, about the divergence of aims between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood and, it appears, would not object to a brokered deal to end the insurrection that allows the MB to get its nose in the political tent, then make its play for winning control of the new government through some combination of foreign pressure, domestic mobilization, and elections.

Saudi Arabia, it appears, has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood and is perfectly happy to crater the Assad regime through a bloody insurrection abetted by foreign jihadis,  in order to deny Iran a regional ally, score another victory for fundamentalist Sunni rollback, and increase the pressure on the Shi’a-led government of Iraq by adding the factor of a hostile, pro-Saudi and overtly Sunni Syrian regime to the increasingly disgruntled and emboldened Sunnis of western Iraq (some of whom are reportedly participating in the Syrian war).

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton abruptly ordered the reorganization of the overseas Syrian opposition in November 2012, ostensibly to make it more representative (and possibly to make it appear less like a stalking horse for the Muslim Brotherhood), Qatar played along.

Qatar hosted the reboot of the Syrian coalition—which still included a dominating MB component–as the “Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces“.

At the time, I wrote that the ghost at the banquet was Saudi Arabia (i.e. Saudi Arabia did not attend but was nevertheless a significant and disturbing presence, for people who don’t get the Macbeth reference), and pointed out that the aggressive Saudi agenda of regime collapse through jihadi-assisted insurrection would ineluctably result in the other interested parties thinking about how to cope, sooner or later, with these dangerous, destabilizing, and viscerally anti-democratic and anti-Western armed assets.

The relevant precedent is the so-called “Anbar Awakening” in Iraq in 2006, when socially conservative but not particularly fundamentalist Sunni elites in western Iraq got nervous about the growing role of al Qaeda in their anti-US resistance (and AQ’s challenge to their local authority and personal safety), switched over to cooperation with the United States, and participated in a counterinsurgency raree cum death squad purge of the jihadis.

Saudi Arabia has no interest in a moderate Sunni counter-revolution targeting its fundamentalist Sunni counter-revolution in Syria, so it has, in my mind, little interested in a negotiated political settlement that would presumably involve the long-suffering local Sunni elites clubbing together with a new, ostensibly moderate Syrian regime to annihilate the Saudi-funded and/or encouraged jihadis and restore a measure of stability and political control to the stricken country.

Therefore, at the SNCORF launch, a radical rump was able to veto a call for a negotiated settlement.

This week, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud, explicitly rejected any negotiated settlement—a position which, though advantageous to Saudi interests, was probably greeted with dismay by the war-weary Syrians of every political stripe, and the foreign powers who are tired of the Syrian sideshow and would like the whole problem swept under the rug with a Yemen-style transfer of power:

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said on Tuesday the scale of violence used by Syria’s government when fighting rebels meant a negotiated settlement of the country’s crisis was unthinkable.

“Damascus… which has been a city for the longest period of time, is carpet bombed. How can you conceive of the possibility of a negotiated settlement with somebody who does that to his own country, to his own history, to his own people? It is inconceivable to us,” Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference.

The United States and its European allies, it appears, would welcome some kind of negotiated settlement as long as Western face is saved by Assad stepping down.  Turkey, which is facing a growing Kurdish calamity and has probably had a bellyful of its Syrian adventurism, would probably agree.  And, as noted above, Qatar has a post-Assad electoral agenda based on its MB assets.

However, Prince Saud has drawn the line in the sand, indicating that Saudi Arabia is optimistic about a scenario of total regime collapse—and a subsequent political endgame in which Saudi allies occupy a privileged and protected position in the new power structure instead of getting massacred by a tag team of threatened Sunni citizens and the newly “democratic” Syrian army.

If Turkey and the western powers feel compelled to clean up the mess after Syrian regime collapse, the Saudi position seems to be, they are welcome to send in an occupying army–Saudi Arabia certainly won’t.   This is something that the United States, EU, and Turkey are probably equally loath to commit to, for reasons beyond the quite understandable “the last thing we need is another Middle East military quagmire” concerns.

The unwillingness of the anti-Assad coalition to encourage, enable, and validate the Saudi strategy by implying any intent to commit forces to restore order and nationbuild after a regime collapse—as much as fear of an eventual Syrian quagmire—probably accounts for the western squeamishness about threatening armed intervention in anything more than the most toothless and abstract terms.

However, Prince Saud’s statement indicates that potential trauma of a post-Assad failed Syrian state–in which disciplined fundamentalist local and jihadi fighters have the potential to play an important role despite their smaller numbers– is unlikely to deter Saudi Arabia from its regime collapse strategy.

And, after years of ostentatious vilification of Assad—and, I suspect, a callous willingness among Obama administration realpolitik practitioners to advance anti-Iran rollback notwithstanding the consequences for the Syrian people—the United States lacks the political will to demand a negotiated settlement of Assad—or of its allies in the anti-Assad coalition.

Saudi Arabia, by its intransigence—and, possibly through sustained, sub rosa support for religiously fundamentalist fighters, foreign and domestic, inside Syria—holds a de facto veto on the policy position of the anti-Assad powers and the future of Syria itself.

Peter Lee edits China Matters. He can be reached at: chinamatters (at) prlee. org.