Haidar Hamdani / AFP / Getty Images

ISIL’s advance puts Saudi Arabia between Iraq and a hard place

Analysis: The kingdom is trapped between Sunni fighters it dislikes and expanding Iranian clout in Baghdad

The battle between Iraq’s government and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which threatens to plunge Iraq back into the chaos of sectarian civil war, puts Saudi Arabia in an increasingly awkward position.

The Saudis have long been at loggerheads with the Iran-backed Shia-dominated government  of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seeing Iraq as a key theater of its battle for influence with Tehran that also plays out in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. But while ISIL poses the deadliest challenge yet to Maliki, its rapid emergence as a key regional player threatens Saudi interests as well as those of Iran. Still, the military effort to reverse ISIL’s rapid gains over the past week with possible U.S. and Iranian assistance is likely, at least in the short term, to strengthen the hand of Riyadh’s adversaries in Iraq.

The Saudis took several days to respond to last week’s news that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was involved in the Iraqi fight against ISIL, and that some form of alliance of convenience between the U.S. and Iran was being mooted to stabilize security in Iraq. 

When Riyadh did speak out on the crisis on Monday, it blamed events on Maliki’s failure to reconcile with Iraq’s Sunnis, and it also issued a veiled threat to Iran.

A Saudi government statement said that the events of the past week “could not have taken place if it was not for the sectarian and exclusionary policies implemented in Iraq over the past years that threatened its stability and sovereignty.”

Riyadh said it rejected “foreign interference in [Iraq’s] internal affairs,” and called for a state that would realize the “participation of all components of the Iraqi people in determining the future.”

Maliki has been widely accused of governing on a sectarian basis, using the demographic advantage of the Shia to prevail in elections but using the instruments of power to exclude and alienate the Sunni minority, many of whom had enjoyed comparative advantages under the regime of Saddam Hussein. 

“Ideally, what Riyadh would want is some sort of political accommodation … where Sunni interests are better represented,” said Toby C. Jones, a professor of Middle East studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He said Riyadh wants Iraq “beholden to interests that the Saudis could support.” 

But the rapid gains of ISIL in the past week present Riyadh with a policy dilemma.

“[The Saudis] blame Maliki for inviting this crisis by alienating Sunnis and for failing spectacularly when faced with the ISIL blitz. But their fear and distrust of ISIL is real. This is a group that would storm Riyadh and Mecca if it could,” said Matthew M. Reed, vice president at Foreign Reports, a Middle East–focused consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

Like the United States, then, Saudi Arabia finds itself caught in a security conundrum with no clear endgame — although with far closer proximity to the consequences of the ISIL surge. 

“The Saudis are caught,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Vermont. “They don’t like Iran or Maliki … but they don’t like [ISIL] either. I think they’re risk-averse and divided about what they want to do.”

Riyadh is hardly unique in demanding greater Sunni inclusion in the Shia-dominated Maliki political order. The same view has been constantly reiterated by President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials, and endorsed by many analysts who view Sunni alienation from the new political order in Iraq as increasingly undermining the security of the Iraqi state.

“The question of Sunni Arab participation in Iraq’s political order that has plagued the transition [from Saddam Hussein] since its inception is as acute and explosive as ever,” warned the International Crisis Group in a report published in August 2013, months before ISIL’s meteoric rise on the Iraqi battlefield.

Some experts believe that the Saudis’ embrace of Sunni armed groups fighting the Iran-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has inadvertently fueled the crisis in Iraq — ISIL operates on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, and is beyond the orders or influence of any government. (Advocates of greater backing for Syria’s rebels counter that insufficient support to rival groups there allowed ISIL to prosper.)

On Tuesday, the Iraqi government blasted the Saudis, accusing them of supporting ISIL.

"We hold [Saudi Arabia] responsible for supporting these groups financially and morally, and for the outcome of that — which includes crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of Iraqi state institutions and historic and religious sites," a government statement read.

But that’s a vast overstatement of Saudi influence, said Reed at Foreign Reports: “Assad’s durability up to now only underscores how limited Saudi influence is,” he said. “Saudi influence in Iraq is modest also, contrary to what Maliki claims.”

While the Saudi authorities officially reject ISIL, criminalizing its citizens who join such groups abroad and targeting domestic supporters, ISIL’s funding stream is believed by many to reach into the wealthy elites of the kingdom and of some of its Gulf neighors, and there appear to have been divisions in Riyadh over the extent of the risk to Saudi interests posed by backing radical groups fighting Assad.  

Writing in an op-ed for The New York Times, Steven Simon, a former member of Obama’s national security council, said states such as Saudi Arabia that “tacitly support the rebels as payback against Iran for its perceived takeover of Iraq will do nothing to support the rebels’ military campaign, for fear of creating an uncontrollable situation, even if their nationals privately fund the rebel army.”

The resulting carnage seems more likely to favor Iran, whose influence in Baghdad is much stronger, and on whom Maliki will be even more dependent in the face of ISIL’s challenge. That leaves Riyadh without many options.

“One of the interesting things is how little involved they are. They have a hard time finding local clients that aren’t really problematic,” Gause said regarding Riyadh's possible choices.

But Saudi concern over some of Washington’s recent moves to thaw relations with Tehran — including continuing efforts to reach a final agreement over Iran’s nuclear program — is likely to be confined to private displeasure, and tempered by the reality that Saudi Arabia still leans heavily on U.S. power in the region.

“They’re dependent on the U.S. for all sorts of reasons,” said Rutgers’ Jones. “If they flip the switch, and go back and pursue a more antagonistic line [with Iran], that’s not going to go down well in the U.S.”

“This is a balance-of-power game,” Jones continued. “They want to win the chessboard.” Given the options available in Iraq’s current situation, that will be a long strategic game.

Meanwhile, although Gause said it was not a fantasy that a regional thaw between Riyadh and Tehran might emerge from the flames of Iraq’s current violence, he thought the opposite scenario was more likely. “I see everyone running to their corners,” he said.

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Iraq, Saudi Arabia

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