The diplomatic crisis brewing between Saudi Arabia and Iran could spell trouble for the entire Middle East, as the rivalry between the region’s leading Sunni and Shia powers threatens to escalate their various proxy conflicts in the region. But the timing is particularly unfortunate for Syria, whose stalemated peace process was due to formally restart in Geneva later this month — and hinges on cooperation between Riyadh and Tehran.
After five years of bloodshed, fueled largely by foreign cash and weapons, diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Iran finally sat at the same table in Vienna in October to discuss an end to a conflict that has claimed nearly 300,000 lives. That the U.S. and its allies, who back the Syrian opposition, had finally relented and allowed Tehran, which arms and provides troops to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a place in diplomatic negotiations was considered a major breakthrough for brokering peace — if deeply concerning to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, which fears Iran’s creeping influence in the region.
But tentative hopes that progress could finally be made now that every foreign stakeholder is at the table were thrown into jeopardy on Jan. 2, when Riyadh announced it had executed the prominent Shia cleric dissident Nimr al-Nimr on disputed charges of fomenting violence in the country’s east. The circumstances of the execution — he was killed along with dozens of convicted Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) members — and allegations that Nimr was merely being persecuted for anti-government activity, was seen by many Shias as a deliberate provocation. When an angry mob in Tehran responded by torching the Saudi embassy there, Riyadh and its Sunni Gulf allies promptly severed diplomatic ties or withdrew their ambassadors from Iran — sparking the most serious diplomatic crisis in the region since the 1980s.
With fiery sectarian rhetoric emanating from both sides of the Persian Gulf, U.N. diplomats are scrambling to dispel fears that the crisis will engulf Syria talks before they even begin on Jan. 25. Steffan de Mistura, the current U.N. envoy to Syria, emerged from a meeting in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Tuesday insisting that nothing had changed. “There is a clear determination on the Saudi side that the current regional tensions will not have any negative impact on the Vienna momentum and on the continuation of the political process that the U.N., together with the International Syria Support Group, intend to start in Geneva soon,” de Mistura said, according to a U.N. statement. "We cannot afford to lose this momentum despite what is going on in the region."
Jubeir echoed that optimism, saying that the brewing crisis “would not affect” the peace talks “negatively,” according to the official Saudi news agency.
The consensus among analysts is that escalating antagonism between Riyadh and Tehran won’t help matters. “Before this, it was a mess to get something organized in Syria. This has complicated it even more," Richard Murphy, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria, told Al Jazeera.
But for many, those concerns belie the very low expectations they had for talks to begin with. “I don’t see this affecting the peace process, because the process was dead anyway,” said Bilal Saab, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t help that Saudi and Iran are more at odds now. But it won’t be the primary cause for why peace talks will fail."
Even as a burgeoning refugee crisis and fears about the imminent collapse of the Syrian state lend urgency to the stagnant peace effort, there has been little movement on the key disputes that have halted the peace process for years — above all, Assad’s departure, which Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey insist on, but Iran and Russia have thus far dismissed out of hand. Significantly, Assad's future was not mentioned in the roadmap for peace signed by the UN Security Council in December.
Other stumbling blocks include which of Syria’s disjointed opposition armed and political factions should represent the opposition at peace talks. The Assad regime and its backers want to bar most of the armed factions, branding them “terrorists," while Saudi Arabia and its allies, who back a wide range of these groups, argue that no peace process can proceed unless the most powerful rebel factions are represented.
These substantive divides, more so than Riyadh and Tehran’s mutual animosity, are the reason for the diplomatic stalemate, Saab said. Opposition leaders have called on the regime to make trust-building concessions before talks begin, namely lifting sieges in certain towns like Madaya and halting its deadly barrel bombing campaigns. But it isn’t yet clear to diplomats what concessions the regime side will be willing to make, Saab said. “Beyond Assad [remaining in power], we’re not clear what the other red lines are. Certainly the Russians and Iranians have not communicated them to the Saudis,” he added.
Others worry that Saudi Arabia’s execution was intended to escalate regional pressure on Iran and thereby build leverage ahead of Syria negotiations. Most believe Riyadh is acting out of a mixture of anxiety about creeping Iranian influence in the Middle East and fears about U.S.-Iran rapprochement, as well as to quell looming domestic turmoil — distracting attention at home from its interventions in Syria and Yemen, both against Iranian proxies, that are perceived as costly failures.
But Syria watchers predicted that all sides of Syria’s proxy war would take steps to improve their bargaining positions as the peace process kicked off. On the regime side, the airstrike that killed a key rebel leader in the Damascus suburbs, and a heightened aerial campaign on the most important rebel-held city, Idlib, could be seen as examples of such escalation. Saudi Arabia's actions might fit a similar pattern.
Even so, few believe stirring the pot with Iran will bolster Saudi interests in Syria. The bigger obstacles facing its rebel proxies, after all, are an Assad regime that has been strengthened by Russia’s intervention and by waning Western interest in dethroning the Syrian president since ISIL seized control of much of Syria and Iraq. Moreover, delaying the Syrian diplomatic process a few months longer is unlikely to deter Iran.
“Even though the Syrian civil war has been very costly to Iran in terms of resources, soft power and standing in the Arab world, Tehran views the survival of its ally ... as reconfirmation of Iran’s power and deterrence,” said Trita Parsi, an expert on U.S.-Iran relations and professor at Georgetown University. “Although Iran cannot be declared a winner of the Arab Spring, it has probably lost the least compared to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S.”