segunda-feira, 4 de abril de 2016

Saudi’s friendships show American influence waning

After King Salman of Saudi Arabia came to the throne in 2015 and allowed his favourite son and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to seize the main reins of power in the kingdom, the country has embarked on an assertive foreign and regional policy. The ageing and frail king’s son has upstaged the crown prince and next in line of succession, interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef. That much everyone agrees.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has accumulated surprising power, in a system where the ruling family normally seeks a careful balance between factions. MbS, as he is known in diplomatic shorthand, aged only 30 in a regime long run by men in their 70s and 80s, is defence minister and economic tsar, as well as overlord of the closely tied areas of foreign and oil policy.

A linear summary of foreign and defence policy in his first year would probably highlight: the Saudi-led air war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched last March; increased support for Sunni Islamist rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is backed by Iran, Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia paramilitaries and Russia; the break-off of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran; and, in recent weeks, severing ties with Saudi political, military and media allies in Lebanon.

What it might skip over is the budding detente between the kingdom and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, ally to all that Saudi Arabia most detests in the region — Iran, Hizbollah, and the Assad regime.

Alliances of convenience are hardly new to the Middle East. The will to power of entrenched regimes often coexists with pragmatism, making strange bedfellows of sworn enemies. But the present situation has reached unusual heights of visceral and violent antagonism in the proxy wars between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran across the region, above all in Syria. But, first, what has Saudi Arabia been up to?

Riyadh is signalling a pullback from the war in Yemen. Saudi officials say they have destroyed a missile threat to the kingdom from their unruly southern neighbour. To many other eyes, it looks as if MbS bit off more than he could chew. Despite Riyadh unveiling an alliance of more than 30 Sunni nations to confront Iran’s designs, Egypt and Pakistan, which have the biggest armies, conspicuously declined to provide ground forces for the Saudi air war. In Syria, a Saudi threat to send in troops to support Sunni rebels proved empty.

The diplomatic break with Iran, and rupture with Lebanon, came after the Saudi execution in January of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a dissident Shia cleric. Riyadh reacted after the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad were attacked by mobs. Lebanon’s foreign minister, a Hizbollah-aligned Christian, declined to condemn the events — acting as more papist than the Pope given that the Iranian government itself did so. The Saudis have cancelled $3bn in aid to Lebanon’s army, stopped paying local Sunni allies and associated media, and closed the Beirut office of Al Arabiya, a TV network owned by members of the royal family.

Yet, at the same time, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has forged what Arab officials describe as a “functional and substantive” relationship with President Putin, covering Syria, possible Saudi arms purchases from and investment in Russia , and joint attempts to stabilise oil prices by freezing output.

On Syria, US- and Russia-led peace efforts are still stymied by Moscow’s insistence that President Assad must be part of any transition out of war — which Washington and Riyadh are ostensibly resisting. But when MbS met Mr Putin last October at the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi, he told him: “We do not care about the Assads, we care about Iran,” according to an Arab official in contact with the deputy crown prince. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said afterwards: “We now have a much clearer vision of how to move along the path of political settlement.”

No such settlement is likely when talks on peace resume next week in Geneva. Despite Mr Putin’s partial withdrawal from Syria last month, Russia-backed Assad forces are still on the offensive — not just against Saudi-backed rebels but now also against the jihadis of Isis, from whom they recaptured the city of Palmyra last week.

Some Arab sources say the Russian leader even informed MbS about his new Syrian policy before he told Mr Assad.

Mr Putin may be signalling to Mr Assad that, unless he engages with evolving plans to end Syria’s war, Moscow could dump him. Russia, at the head of the Iran-backed axis in Syria and Iraq, is also now intersecting with the US-led coalition against Isis. Both coalitions are backing Syrian Kurdish militia fighting Isis across northern Syria. Russia’s ally Iran is de facto co-
operating with the US in Iraq.

But Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with Russia surely speak of the waning regional influence of the US, with which the kingdom has been closely allied for 70 years. After Barack Obama started a thaw in US relations with Iran through last year’s nuclear deal, and Mr Putin stormed into a Syrian war the US president has sought to avoid, the Saudis seem to have decided to work with Moscow, in the belief that it can influence Tehran. Syria, in all its gore, is the cockpit of the current Middle East.

David Gardner

Fonte: FT