By Robert Parry | Consortium News | August 29, 2013
The twin crises in Syria and Egypt have marked the emergence of a new superpower coalition in the Middle East, the odd-couple alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia, with Jordon serving as an intermediary and the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms playing a supporting role.
The potential impact of this new coalition can barely be overstated, with Israel bringing to the table its remarkable propaganda skills and its unparalleled influence over U.S. foreign policy and Saudi Arabia tapping into its vast reservoir of petrodollars and exploiting its global financial networks. Together the two countries are now shaping international responses to the conflicts in Syria and Egypt, but that may only be the start.
Though Israel and Saudi Arabia have had historic differences – one a Jewish religious state and the other embracing the ultraconservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam – the two countries have found, more recently, that their interests intersect.
Both see Iran, with its Shiite rulers, as their principal regional rival. Both are leery of the populist Islamic movements unleashed by the Arab Spring. Both sided with the Egyptian military in its coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and both are pleased to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad facing a possible military assault from the United States.
While the two countries could be accused of riding the whirlwind of chaos across the Middle East – inviting a possibility that the sectarian divisions and the political violence will redound negatively to their long-term interests – there can be little doubt that they are enjoying at least short-term gains.
In recent months, Israel has seen its strategic position enhanced by the overthrow of Egypt’s populist Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, a political change that has further isolated the Hamas-led Palestinians in Gaza. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the Shiite movement of Hezbollah has come under increasing military and political pressure after sending militants into Syria to support the embattled Assad regime.
Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam, and has been a longtime benefactor of Hezbollah, the political-military movement that drove Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon and has remained a thorn in Israel’s side. The growing sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war, with Sunnis leading the fight against Assad, also served to drive a wedge between Hamas, a Sunni movement, and two of its key benefactors, the Syrian government and its Iranian allies.
In other words, Israel is benefiting from the Sunni-Shiite divisions ripping apart the Islamic world as well as from the Egyptian coup which further weakened Hamas by re-imposing the Gaza blockade. Now, Israel has a freer hand to dictate a political solution to the already-weak Palestinian Authority on the West Bank when peace talks resume.
A Method to Neocon Madness
Giving Israel this upper hand has long been the goal of American neoconservatives, although they surely could not have predicted the precise course of recent history. The idea of “regime change” in Iraq in 2003 was part of a neocon strategy of making a “clean break” with frustrating negotiations in which Israel was urged to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.
The plan to dump negotiations in favor of confrontations was outlined in a 1996 policy paper, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” and prepared by prominent neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, for Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign for prime minister.
In the document, the neocons wrote: “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War.”]
The neocons failed to persuade President Bill Clinton to invade Iraq in the late 1990s, but their hopes brightened when George W. Bush became president in 2001 and when the American people were whipped into a state of hysteria by the 9/11 attacks.
Still, it appears that the neocons believed their own propaganda about the Iraqis welcoming American troops as liberators and accepting a U.S. puppet as their new leader. That, in turn, supposedly was to lead Iraq to establish friendly ties with Israel and give the U.S. military bases for promoting “regime change” in Syria and Iran.
In 2002, as President Bush was winding up to deliver his haymaker against Saddam Hussein, neocons passed around a favorite joke about where to go next after conquering Iraq. Should it be Syria or Iran, Damascus or Tehran? The punch line was: “Real men go to Tehran!”
However, the Iraq War didn’t work out exactly as planned. Bush did succeed in ousting Hussein from power and enjoyed watching him marched to the gallows, dropped through a trapdoor and hanged by the neck until dead. But the U.S. occupation touched off a sectarian bloodbath with Hussein’s Sunni minority repressed by the newly empowered Shiite majority. Sunni extremists flocked to Iraq from around the Middle East to kill both Iraqi Shiites and Americans.
The end result of the Iraq War was to transform Iraq from a Sunni-ruled authoritarian state into a Shiite-ruled authoritarian state, albeit still a place where sectarian bombings are nearly a daily occurrence. Yet, one of the principal beneficiaries of the Iraq War was Iran with its Shiite theocratic government unexpectedly finding itself with a new Shiite ally replacing a longtime Sunni enemy, Saddam Hussein, all thanks to the United States.
But the Iraq War had another consequence. It exacerbated sectarian tensions across the region. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil states that had supported Hussein in his war with Iran in the 1980s, were shocked to see Iran now have a “Shiite crescent” of influence extending through Iraq and Syria to the Shiite enclaves in Lebanon.
The Saudi monarchy was shaken, too, by the popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi ally, was ousted and replaced by a democratically elected government led by the populist Muslim Brotherhood.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood was Sunni, too, the movement represented a mix of Islam and democratization, which posed a threat to the Saudi princes who live pampered lives of unimaginable wealth and privilege. On a personal level, these playboys confine their wives to humiliating conditions out of the Middle Ages while the men sample the pleasures of lavish European resorts or fly in Scandinavian prostitutes for parties.
Yet, while the Arab Spring sent shivers down the spines of the oil sheiks of the Persian Gulf – and even brought a Saudi military intervention to put down a Shiite-led democratic uprising in Bahrain – the political upheavals also presented an opportunity to Saudi geopolitical strategists, the likes of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the United States and now head of Saudi intelligence.
By supporting rebels and militants in Syria, for instance, the Saudis and the other oil sheiks saw a chance to reverse Iran’s geopolitical gains. And, by funneling billions of dollars to the Egyptian generals, the Persian Gulf monarchists countered any pressure for restraint from the United States.
Increasingly, too, the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel began crisscrossing, sparking a relationship that the Jordanian monarchy helped broker and encourage. Jordan has strong security ties to Israel and is dependent on the largesse of the Persian Gulf royals, making it a perfect matchmaker for this unlikely hook-up.
According to intelligence sources, Jordan has been the principal site for bilateral contacts between Israelis and Saudis, a behind-the-scenes alliance that finally went public with their joint support for the Egyptian coup. While Saudi Arabia arranged the finances for Egypt’s new military regime, Israel deployed its potent lobby in Washington to dissuade President Barack Obama from labeling the coup a coup, which would have forced a shutoff of U.S. military aid.
Now, this new powerhouse combo is teaming up on Syria, where the Saudis and other Persian Gulf states have been financing the rebels seeking to destabilize and possibly overthrow the Assad government, while the Israelis have been deploying their political and propaganda assets to increase international pressure on Assad.
Both the Saudis and the Israelis stand to benefit from having Assad’s regime bled over time into either a weakened state or its demise. For Saudi Arabia, regime change in Syria that would mark a strategic victory against its chief rival Iran.
Israel also would like to see Iran undercut and isolated, but there is the additional benefit of hurting Hezbollah and further alienating the Palestinians from important sources of support, i.e. Iran and Syria. That gets Israel closer to the neocon vision of leaving desperate Palestinians with little choice but to accept whatever “peace” terms that Israel chooses to dictate.
There is, of course, a potential downside for Israel and the West. Since Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are arming some of the most radical Islamists fighting in Syria, including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, one outcome of the Syrian civil war could be a new haven for Islamic terrorism in the heart of the Middle East. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia was the principal funder for Osama bin Laden and his jihadists who traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets before turning their hatred and suicidal tactics against the United States.
The emerging Saudi-Israeli alliance also may have serious ramifications for global geopolitics. The combination of Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary financial and economic clout and Israel’s equally extraordinary capacity to pull political and propaganda strings, especially inside the United States, could mean that a new superpower has stepped onto the international stage.
Its arrival may be heralded by whether Saudi Arabia and Israel can jointly yank the United States into the Syrian civil war.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
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