July 6, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 3973

Saudi Press Criticizes Syrian, Iranian Regimes

July 6, 2011
Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran | Special Dispatch No. 3973

As protests in Syria escalated, especially following the fighting in Jisr Al-Shughour, the Saudi press featured extensive coverage of the situation, characterized by criticism of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's iron-fist policy toward the protestors. This criticism first surfaced in mid-June, after the Saudi press had almost entirely ignored the protests in Syria for several months.[1]

Articles in the Saudi press claimed that the situation in Syria had reached a point of no return, necessitating immediate and wide-ranging reforms,[2] but at the same time avoided calling for the ouster of Assad or his regime. This was in line with the official Saudi policy of largely avoiding discussion of the domestic affairs of other countries and refraining from calling for the toppling of other regimes – all of which would necessarily affect Saudi Arabia's own domestic political discourse.

In criticizing the events in Syria, some of the articles also addressed Syria's strong ties with Iran, with some writers even accusing Iran of involvement in the suppression of the protests. Such references to Iran come against the backdrop of tense Saudi-Iranian relations, following recent events in Bahrain.[3]

Criticism of Syria in the Saudi government press reflected the deteriorating ties between the two countries. By addressing Syria's domestic affairs, the Saudi press broke a two-year silence on Syria and its regime. In January 2009, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz launched a rapprochement effort with Syria, aimed at distancing the country from the Iranian axis. As a result, the Saudi press, which since 2005 had regularly criticized Syria, thereafter completely refrained from criticizing President Assad's policies and avoided discussing Syria's domestic affairs.

The decline in Saudi-Syrian relations is one manifestation of the transformations and shifting balance of power in the Middle East – the result of the waves of protest sweeping the Arab world in recent months. It may be that Saudi Arabia is hoping that the enfeeblement of Assad's regime will, in one way or another, serve it in its fierce confrontation with Iran and empower the anti-Iran axis in the Middle East.[4] In the same vein, the Saudi press also regarded Turkey's potential involvement in Syria, which some writers cautioned against, as a counterweight to Iran's intervention there.

Following are excerpts from several articles from the Saudi press on the events in Syria:

The Promise of Reform Is Mere Lip Service

An op-ed in the Saudi daily Al-Watan hinted that the Syrian regime was untrustworthy and called for it to implement reforms without delay: "... Anyone familiar with the Syrian regime – which is founded first and foremost on security [and which considers] all other matters of state, such as the economy, society, and politics, to be the least of its priorities – wonders how this iron regime can present itself on its media outlets as the victim of armed gangs easily capable of advancing from Der'a in the south of the country to Deir Al-Zor and Jisr Al-Shughour in the north near the Turkish border, passing through Homs, Hama, Idlib, and the Damascus countryside... Anyone who watches Syrian television or reads [Syrian] newspapers and websites... wonders: Is this really what is happening in Syria?...

"The reforms the regime has proposed – lifting the Emergency Law, and general amnesty, the party law, the media law, and the establishment of a committee for national dialogue – have yet to be implemented. Time is wasted on meetings that do not convince the protestors, not even those which Damascus calls 'the national opposition.' This raises questions regarding how serious [the regime] is about these reforms and their implementation in the near future. Every loyal Arab longs for stability in Syria, and the sooner the leadership [there] instates reforms, the sooner it will satisfy the Arab senior officials and peoples. The longer it procrastinates, the more the Arabs and international [community] will close in on it."[5]

Turkey Likely to Lead an International Move against Syria

Another op-ed in Al-Watan read: "... Many have broken their silence over the events in Syria. The American and European positions [on these events] were joined by Turkey's firm position, as manifest in Prime Minister Erdogan's statements... in Turkey's rejection of [Syria's] demand that it send the Syrian refugees back, and in [Turkey's] hard line [against] the violence going on there...

"The international [community] has broken its silence over [the events in] Syria; this proves that the Syrian situation [is about to change], and that the international measures against it can be expected to become more serious, under U.N. oversight. Turkey's declarations and positions may be the real reflection of the international mindset, since Turkey made it clear that it was not dismissing the possibility of military intervention in Syria. [As such, it can be assumed that Turkey] would be the nexus of any future move against Syria. [In any case, Turkey's declaration] put the ball in Syria's court, and Syria's steps in the near future will have a significant effect not only on Syria itself, but on the entire region."[6]

The Syrian Regime has Chosen Internal Strife over Democracy

In an op-ed in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, Yousuf Al-Kuwailit expressed disappointment in President Bashar Al-Assad's regime, comparing it to that of his father. He wrote that Syria was now at a crossroads leading either to Turkey or to Iran, and warned of the likelihood of international military intervention if Syria failed to build democracy: "...The late president, Hafez Al-Assad, was a man of pragmatic policy, as a result of which he established an alliance with Iran without abandoning his Arab role. He took part in the war to liberate Kuwait because he had been exposed to the aggression of Saddam [Hussein] and had lost faith in him. His talks with enemies and friends alike earned him their special respect, while [they] ignored his domestic political mistakes...

"Upon coming [to power], [Hafez Al-Assad's] son Bashar stirred optimism amongst the Syrians and others. As a youth who had lived and been educated in the West, he raised hopes that he would rebuild his country according to the wind [of change]... But the wind blew in the opposite [direction]. His army withdrew from Lebanon due to international pressure, and his mut'a marriage[7] with Iran, meant to compensate for the withdrawal, made Hizbullah his in-laws...

"Instead of maneuvering wisely between the two regional powers [i.e. Iran and Turkey] and building up its domestic [sphere] before anything else, as part of the basis for a democratic state, Syria has used [its] military arm against its own people and made it so that Iran and Turkey played on its own turf... Syria has reached a crossroads, and it is feared that the international community will pressure and boycott [Syria], [as a prelude to] a military intervention. This is a real possibility of which Turkey has warned... Will Damascus get the message?"[8]

Saudi Commentator to Iran, Hizbullah: Let Syria Alone

In the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, commentator Jasser Al-Jasser criticized Iran's involvement in Syria, calling on Iran and Hizbullah to let the Syrians deal with their crisis on their own, and emphasizing that the most desirable outcome was dialogue between the Syrian regime and its people: "... The silence over what is being done in Syria, both within and outside Syria, is unacceptable. We see... the suffering and agony of our kin in Syria, and the violence against them by many elements, within Syria and elsewhere. And we say: Enough...

"We must not keep silent over the situation in Syria. Everyone is turning to the Syrian people and advising it on how to act in this crisis – [a crisis] in which innocent people are being killed daily. What has Iran to do with Syria's future? What do Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] commander [Mohammad Ali] Jafari, [IRGC Al-Qods Forces commander] Qassem Suleimani, and IRGC [Intelligence Bureau chief Hossein] Taeb want with Syria? What does [Hizbullah Secretary-General] Hassan Nasrallah want, and how does he dare accuse the entire [Syrian] people of conspiracy?

"What is this nonsense? [Nasrallah and] your Iranian patrons – take your hands off Syria. Let the [Syrian] people reach [their own] understanding, and hold a dialogue with the president and his government, at the negotiations table or through protests – which are [also] a form of dialogue. Take your hands off Syria! The Syrian people has rebelled against the Iranian occupation. It is not like the Iraqis, who fell into the snare of Iranian hegemony; nor is it like the Lebanese, who are controlled by Iran via your organization [Hizbullah], Hassan Nasrallah!"[9]

There's A Need for a Solution That Will Weaken Iran and Strengthen Saudi Arabia

In an article titled "The Syrian President Has Lost the Legitimacy to Continue Ruling," in the Saudi daily Al-Iqtisadiya, Dr. Hassan Al-Barari, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, wrote that Syria had reached a point of no return, and that the situation there could only be resolved by reform, combined with measures to weaken Iran's standing and strengthen Saudi Arabia's:

"U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declaration that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had lost his legitimacy [to rule] is not absurd. The same is true of French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe's statements to the effect that France was ready to demand that the [U.N.] Security Council vote on condemning Syria for its barbaric suppression of the protests demanding democracy, while commenting that the Syrian president had lost his legitimacy to continue ruling, and that the time had come for the Security Council to publicly declare its positions [on the matter]...

"Change is expected [in Syria], and when it happens, it is likely to form new regional blocs... This, I believe, is why Turkey, the U.S., and Hizbullah, as well as Iran and Israel, are taking an interest in the dynamics of [what is happening] in Syria... Turkey's moves... are not limited to sending delegations to Assad to persuade him to take swift and real steps toward creating a pluralistic political society and implementing significant reforms. Turkey also hosted a conference for the Syrian opposition in Antalya, and the Turkish prime minister made statements that were welcomed by the Syrian protesters, except for the Kurds... Some have hinted at a Turkish-U.S. agreement on handling the Syrian crisis, under which Turkey is expected to play a significant role...

"[As for] Iran, it apparently will not give up on Syria or on any of [its] other allies in the region. Indeed, there are many reports of Iranian aid in the suppression of the Syrian protestors. [This is no surprise, considering] that [Iran] itself... succeeded [in suppressing] its own [protestors]... Since Iran failed to assist the Shi'ites in Bahrain and to weaken the influence of the Gulf states there, it now fears for its ally in Damascus, which comprises members of the 'Alawi minority. The Iranian regime seeks a firm pact that will protect Iranian interests against the U.S. strategy in the Arab arena. Syria plays an important role in this regard...

"[Likewise,] Iran is waging a cold war against Saudi Arabia, fearing that an upheaval in Syria could bring the Sunnis to power and weaken [Iran's] standing in the region, while empowering Saudi Arabia, which plays a prominent strategic role in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, like the other regimes in the Gulf, is monitoring with concern Iran's efforts to alter the balance of power there, after it was partially succeeded in doing so with the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Ba'th regime in Iraq.

"In conclusion, the situation in Syria has reached a point of no return. The Syrian regime cannot continue in the present situation without real reform... If it does not [implement such reform], it will be the biggest loser... The only logical result of any change that may occur in Syria [will come] at the expense of Iran and Hizbullah. This change will create a dynamic of new regional blocs that will weaken Iran... and augment Saudi Arabia's influence not only in the Gulf, but in the entire region."[10]

The Syrian-Iranian Axis Will Lose the Fight

In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Madina, journalist and political commentator Muhanna Al-Hubail wrote: "...All evidence points to the fact that the regime and its Iranian allies will lose this fight... The media's enlistment [in covering the events] and its contact with eyewitnesses are essential factors in exhausting the regime and causing it to lose [the battle of] bloody massacres...

"At this stage, the regime's intransigence will have destructive and revolutionary results. As soon as people begin to grasp the [magnitude of] the massacres and the sieges [on some cities in Syria where protests were held], and to voice their reactions to these... there will be shock and confusion in the army, which has already undergone a small mutiny that will only escalate..." Al-Hubail estimated that the protests would continue resolutely, and that ultimately neither Assad's brutal attempts at suppression nor the involvement of the Iranian axis would be able to withstand them.[11]

Editor of Cautions against Turkish Presence in Syria

Daoud Al-Shiryan, editor of and columnist for the London-based daily Al-Hayat, which is owned by Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan, criticized Turkey's policy vis-à-vis the Arab states, and especially Syria. He called on the Arabs to oppose any Turkish presence in Syria, which he said would be equivalent to Iran's presence in Iraq. Shiryan added that Turkey's policy regarding Libya was two-faced; while on the one hand Turkey was careful to maintain a guise of neutrality vis-à-vis Libya and its ruler, Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi, in order to protect its economic interests there, on the other it had worked to promote the military intervention in Libya by persuading Arab states not to oppose this move.

Shiryan wrote: "Turkey has a humanitarian role vis-à-vis the Syrian refugees who fled the dreadful violence, but the human aspect of this issue is not everything... Ankara is exploiting the Arab silence... in order to achieve regional and economic interests greater and more important [than aiding the refugees]. Can we expect to see Turkey playing a role in reshaping Syria's image?...

"The deterioration of the security situation in Syria is not working in Turkey's favor – but this does not exempt the Arabs from standing in [Turkey's] way, so that we do not see a [Turkish] presence on Syrian soil similar to the Iranian presence in Iraq."[12]


[1] Other Gulf countries, chiefly Qatar and Kuwait, leveled particularly harsh criticism at Syria. Kuwaiti Salafi MP Walid Tabtabai wrote that Assad's ouster would be the greatest possible achievement for the post-colonial Arab world. Al-Watan (Kuwait), June 8, 2011. Daoud Al-Basri, columnist for the anti-Syria Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, called for the prosecution of those who had murdered protesters in Syria. Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), June 12, 2011.

[2] Criticism of Assad's regime was also voiced by Saudi clerics who convened secretly in Riyadh on June 9, 2011, to discuss how to support the protesters in Syria. The convention was attended by upwards of 70 Saudi clerics and preachers, headed by Saudi preacher Sheikh Yousuf Al-Ahmad, who is popular among the kingdom's Islamist stream. The conferees called on the Saudi government to oppose the Syrian regime's suppression of the protests., June 13, 2011.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 695, "Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran Reflected by Cartoons," June 8, 2011, Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran Reflected by Cartoons. An op-ed in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh accused Syria of collaborating with Iran to support Hizbullah. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 11, 2011.

[4] On Saudi Arabia's recent moves toward strengthening the anti-Iranian camp in the Middle East, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No.696, "Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran," June 15, 2011, Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran.

[5] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 14, 2011.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 18, 2011.

[7] Literally "pleasure marriage." A type of marriage permitted in Shi'ite Islam which is contracted for a limited period of time and can be ended without a divorce.

[8] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 17, 2011.

[9] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 27, 2011.

[10] Al-Iqtisadiya (Saudi Arabia), June 10, 2011.

[11] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), May 21, 2011.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), June 27, 2011.

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