Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia: Three’s a Crowd

Published by Alex

The unprecedented complexity of the situation in the Middle East is perhaps best explained through this title from the Marsh 2007 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit: “Three’s a crowd”

The development of the three-cornered relationship between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria will have an important bearing on how the region’s various crises evolve.

Comparing the situation in the Middle East today to that during the nineties, we now see many more conflicts and challenges. More regional players involved in many additional conflicts, confrontations, and crises.

Back in the nineties (until 2001), one had to deal with either the classic Arab Israeli conflict (Syrian and Palestinian tracks) or the situation in Iraq after Saddam Hussein lost the first Gulf war and had to be held to his own country.

The regional players were Egypt (in charge of Palestinian affairs), Syria (in charge of Lebanon) Saudi Arabia (supporting roles in both Lebanon and Palestine) and the United States and Israel.

With regional trouble maker Saddam Hussein weakened after his loss in the first Gulf war, an agreement between Hafez Assad, Hosni Mubarak and Prince Abdullah was sufficient to keep things under control. The three Arab leaders simply made sure they did not undermine each other.

In addition, Presidents Bush Sr. and then Bill Clinton were not interested in “changing Syria’s behavior” or in regime change in Damascus. Syria in turn was an enthusiastic participant in peace talks with Israel and did not interfere in the Palestinian track.






These days (2007), the United States and Iran are heavily involved in several of the region's crises. While Egypt remained satisfied with its role as the largest Arab country, Saudi Arabia became interested in filling the perceived leadership gap left by Hafez Assad’s passing away. That meant taking sole responsibility for Lebanon, away from Syrian control. A bit further to the East, Iran decided to assume the old leadership role left vacant by the dismantled Iraq. In a way, Iran started representing the interests of the region’s Shiite population. Many new conflicts and confrontations were started. A dangerous Sunni-Shiite crisis, panic in Israel as Iran gets closer to owning nuclear technology, Recurring news of a summer war between Syria and Israel, and finally, what started as American efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria Egypt, and Iran) was reduced to a more practical goal: regime change in Syria. U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia got away with minor reforms for now.

So here is a graphical look at the very busy Middle East. It shows who has been more active lately and it shows which conflicts are the most popular for the regional players to try to participate in. And it shows that no single country seems to have control on any of the conflicts. Without an agreement between the regional players and without balanced and practical American expectations probably nothing will be solved.






Comments (62)

Pages: « 1 [2] Show All

51. Gibran said:

Having failed to find the presumed interview of Mr. Urdogan on AlJazeera, we can say:
1) Syria was forced disgracefully out of Lebanon due to the massive Lebanese protests demanding its expulsion as well as due to an ultimatum served to Bashar himself around April/May in 2005 by SA and other States to leave Lebanon within a week.
2) The Lebanese government of Mr. Seniora is a democratically elected government that enjoys absolute parliamentary support, vast popular support as well as international support.
3) Syria is required under UN 1559 and 1701 to pull out its troops from Lebanon, cease arms support of terrorist groups, and cease interference in any form in Lebanese politics. Therefore, Syria has no right to demand formation of Lebanese government. This is purely internal Lebanese politics. Syria can show its good will by complying with UN 1559 and 1701. UN 1559 further considers Mr. Lahood as an illegitimate President, having been forcibly elected contrary to Lebanese constitution under Syrian occupation.
4) The formation of the International tribunal and the handing of Syrian criminals responsible for political assassinations in Lebanon is the key to normal Syrian/ Lebanese relations. This issue cannot be bypassed when it comes to normalizing Syria/Lebanese relations. All criminals no matter their positions (including Bashar) must be made to face justice.


Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 24th, 2007, 12:40 pm


52. Ammad said:

I salute Dr. Landis and alex for this article, it would be a disaster if iran acquuires nuclear technology, already many arab states have expessed their intention to have a nuclear programme. No one knows whats going to happen tommorw

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 24th, 2007, 4:31 pm


53. sean said:


thank you for your reply. I agree with a lot of what you have written.

Quite often the EU is, for the sake of argument, America’s poodle. But that does not necessarily mean that she always is her poodle, nor that the EU will automatically follow America’s lead on every single occasion. It seems that the two will work together when it suits them, yet compete against each other if they have to. I think this holds especially true in areas such as the middle east, where the EU’s agenda is just not the USA’s. If the EU is to advance its Euro-Med/trade agenda in the region, and particularly in the eastern Med, it can only do so at the expense of the USA’s hegemony, specifically Turkey and Israel, both of whom seem to being pulled into the EU orbit more and more. If that is the case, I dont think it is far fetched at all to suggest, for example, that when Israel talks to the EU about upping its status with them, that these discussions include talk of Israeli/ Syrian contacts, or of Israeli/Palestinian contacts, ie, there are diplomatic consequences and quid pro quo’s for Israel, Turkey, Syria, etc when they begin negotiations with Brussels, and that these consequences will quite often work against the US. The Europeans want a stable eastern Med, with all the players having secure boundaries, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon. The US, on the other hand, expects Israel and others to play the samurai/spoiler role for them, and to promote instability in the region.

For these sorts of reasons, Javier deserves his own little column in your chart. To use your language, I think he is an “independent variable,” becoming one more and more so each year. He is not as big a player as the USA. He has had horrible setbacks (the Lebanon war last year), but the EU does appear to be maintaining its independent foothold in the region, whereas ten years ago they only had a toehold. Their progress is at times glacially slow, but it is an independent progress, with its own agenda, and apart from that of the US. When the Syria/Israel talks finally begin this year (!) we should think Javier and not Condi. When Hamas comes in from the cold, we should think Benita and not Elliot

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 24th, 2007, 5:33 pm


54. Enlightened said:


A alternative; we dont have to agree on everything I agree about your premise about the expectations surrounding Bashar, a point I overlooked. I also agree that reform is a hard thing in Syria, and that he might have been hamstrung, you cannot un do thirty years of practices in a short time, but realistically his rule has been a major dissapointment.

That Moron Cheney left Sydney this morning after trying to get more Australian involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the city was virtually shut down and most of the harbour during his visit. ( A lot of pissed of Australians as a consequence)

On a side note, I looked at your website, I was in awe of the collection of the photos, my mother is in posession of photos with me an my grandfather when he took me damascus, homs and aleppo when I was three, my memory does not go back far enough to remember the trip, as we left Lebanon in 74, and i havent been back, I showed my wife your site last night as she has been to Syria 5 Times and has many relatives there. For an exile like me it was a pleasurable experience seeing those shots.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 24th, 2007, 11:23 pm


55. Alex said:

Similar comments in Haaretz today from Zvi Bar’el:

But this is not an isolated American failure. The war in Iraq has hurt the U.S. far beyond this. There is no conflict in the Middle East today in which it is possible to cite the U.S. as the most important player, capable of bringing about a solution. It is not a party to what is taking place in Lebanon, it is leaving Saudi Arabia and Iran to handle it. It made a quick pass through Jerusalem and Ramallah, mumbling something about the road map. And in Iraq, as noted, it is looking for active partners who will take over the business for it. The U.S. retains the important task of addressing Iran, where it also plays a strictly threatening role now, yet finds it difficult to project deterrence. The feeling is that the war in Iraq has emasculated its readiness to embark on another military adventure.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 25th, 2007, 1:06 am


56. Alex said:


I really like Solana and I hope he plays a much more influential role in the Middle East in the Future. He is surely more reassuring than this one.

He can be “an independent”, I agree, but more so when the region is calmer. Today, America is at war and the Europeans do not want to be accused of betraying their powerful ally when they were most needed.

But I have to admit that the same dependence applies to some extent to Israel and Egypt.(both of them are on my graph)

These days America DEMANDS things and its allies can only understand and comply.

The United States demanded that Israel desist from even exploratory contacts with Syria, of the sort that would test whether Damascus is serious in its declared intentions to hold peace talks with Israel.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 25th, 2007, 1:38 am


57. Alex said:


Thank you for your kind words. My site has been very rewarding for me … every time I learned that someone somewhere (As far as Australia) spent a couple of hours on it.

I will be adding few hundred more photographs … when I have the time.

I realize that Bashar’s 7 years (the first 7 years) were disappointing. But I often try to make the point that it is only partially due to his mistakes and his lack of experience… the rest is thanks to the wonderful Saudis who do a lot of damage behind the scene.

And of course, 9/11 followed by the many American visitors next door in Iraq.

Do you know Bashar’s birthday? … September 11th.

I’ll now go to the next thread to criticize him for arresting Michel Kilo and others.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 25th, 2007, 1:51 am


58. Enlightened said:


thats interesting Sept 11? I wonder if his birthday celebrations were muted that year?

I think the dissident issue is important, and scant coverage has been given, either worldwide or on this forum about their plight. As a personal side note i have met many people here in Australia with first hand experience of the famous Syrian Mukhabarat, none reveal a pretty tale. One of my brothers employees spent three years in a Syrian Jail accused of being an Aoun supporter ( he was sunni muslim to boot to) I have had many discussions with him, and the effects of his incarceration and treatment has scarred him. Although the dissidents would not be afforded that treatment, I think it is beyond the bounds of human behaviour.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 25th, 2007, 2:16 am


59. sean said:


you are very kind to reply to me at 1:30 in the morning. Thank you for your time. I greatly appreciated reading your comments, and was very much stimulated by them


Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 26th, 2007, 12:37 am


60. Alex said:

Thank you Sean. And don’t worry about the 1:30 AM … my brain clock is few hours off … always awake at 1:30.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

February 26th, 2007, 9:55 pm


61. Syria Comment » Archives » News Round Up (24 October 2010) said:

[…] مثله مثل أي واحد من رعايا إيران في لبنان! This reminds me of a post I wrote for Syria Comment in 2007. I said the same thing at the […]

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

October 25th, 2010, 11:47 am


62. Visual of the Middle East | A Decade Under The Influence said:

[…] From: This entry was posted in History, Near East, Politics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. ← Food For Thought: Protestant Reformation and Economic Deveolopment of Europe LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

June 25th, 2011, 5:35 pm


Pages: « 1 [2] Show All

Post a comment