In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss how Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war in Syria. It will be their most intense yet, and not their last.
The Turkish government hosted a conference last weekend in Istanbul to discuss possible international responses to Syria's budding civil war. The conference attendees, including the United States along with dozens of other countries and organizations, called themselves the "Friends of Syria" and declared open support for the rebels fighting the Syrian army. The Friends also announced substantial financial support for the rebellion, including $100 million -- pledged by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- to pay salaries to the fighters, a direct inducement to government soldiers to defect to the rebellion. For its part, the U.S. government pledged an additional $12 million in humanitarian assistance to international organizations aiding the Syrian opposition. This assistance will include satellite communications equipment for rebel fighters and night vision goggles. Attending the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said discussions were occurring on "how best to expand this support."
The broad and growing international support for the Syrian rebels is no doubt motivated by several concerns. On a humanitarian level, Bashar al-Assad's security forces are now suspected of killing more than 9,000 civilians over the past year. From this perspective, non-lethal assistance to the opposition seems the least the international community can do to help civilians cope with the widespread disorder inside the country.
At a more practical level, leaders like Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, host of the Istanbul conference, undoubtedly fear population displacement and cross-border refugee flows as a result of the fighting. Assisting the rebels may help keep them and their supporting populations inside the country. Erdogan's support for the rebels may also be an acknowledgement that Assad's remaining time may be limited. If there is to be regime change in Damascus, Erdogan and other leaders will be in a better position to protect their interests if they already have a supportive relationship with Syria's future leaders.
It is at the strategic level where the stakes in Syria are high and rising. The country has become a battleground in the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its smaller Sunni-Arab neighbors against Iran. Smaller versions of the Saudi-Iran proxy war have played out in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen. The clash in Syria raises the intensity and the stakes to a much higher level.
Should the Assad regime fall and Syria's Sunni majority win control, Iran would suffer a crushing geo-strategic defeat. Not only would Tehran lose a loyal and well-located ally, Tehran's line of support to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon would be imperiled. The arrival of Sunni control in Syria might also boost the morale and material support of Iraq's anti-Iranian Sunni minority, a development Riyadh would no doubt welcome.
The proxy war in Syria provides Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their friends with a chance to develop and employ their emerging capabilities in covert action, subversion, and irregular warfare. Over the past three decades, the Quds Force -- the external covert action arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- has achieved remarkable success building up Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and supporting anti-U.S. militias in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, Iran has demonstrated great skill at using covert action and deniable proxies to intimidate adversaries while simultaneously avoiding conventional military retaliation. If these techniques are warfare's latest weapons, Saudi Arabia and its allies likely desire to have them in their own armories.
During last year's rebellion in Libya, tiny Qatar punched way above its weight when it sent hundreds of military advisors to assist the fighters who eventually overwhelmed Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces. Saudi Arabia has called for arming Syria's rebels, an operation that would presumably entail many of the same tactics Qatar employed in its successful unconventional warfare campaign in Libya. If the Saudis are serious about fighting the proxy war in Syria, the kingdom and its allies will have to master the irregular warfare techniques that both the Quds Force and Qatari special forces have recently used.
The emerging civil war in Syria harkens back to the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s. That ugly conflict drew in Europe's great powers and served as both as a proving ground for the weapons and tactics that would be used a few years later in World War II and as an ideological clash between fascism and socialism. For Saudi Arabia and Iran, the stakes in Syria are likely even higher than they were for Germany and the Soviet Union in Spain, which could add to the likelihood of escalation.
It is Syria's rebels that need some more escalation from their outside friends. The Istanbul conference was one small success but the rebels will need more. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has argued that Syria's rebels will never defeat the army, even if they are eventually "armed to the teeth." Without more explicit external intervention, he is very likely correct. In Libya, the rebels benefited greatly from NATO's air power, which attacked massing Libyan security forces in their assembly areas, precluded their open movement against rebel locations, and provided close air support for the rebels during the final drive on Tripoli. The Syrian army faces none of these threats as it maneuvers against rebel concentrations.
Syria's rebels should not look to the sky for the support Libya's rebels received. NATO will not intervene. U.S. support will very likely remain minor, discreet, and indirect. And as much as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE may want to prevail in Syria, their air forces don't have the technical skills to do over Syria what NATO did over Libya.
For now, cash is the weapon of choice in Syria rather than laser-guided bombs. Saudi Arabia hopes to buy the Syrian army rather than bomb it. For this war, the kingdom's oil-financed bank accounts may be more powerful than its squadrons of F-15 fighter-bombers.
Until some event triggers military escalation, Riyadh and its friends will have to perfect the black arts of covert action and irregular warfare to fight the war in Syria. When they master these skills, they will be catching up to where the Quds Force has been for a long time. Syria may only be a preview of Saudi-Iranian clashes yet to come.