Jeddah: Saudi King Abdullah, normally a discreet behind-the-scenes conciliator, has denounced the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad with rare royal rage, and his people have joined in with gusto.
King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to publicly rebuke Al Assad in August 2011, when he said the crackdown in Syria was “not acceptable to Saudi Arabia” and called for the Syrian regime to make “comprehensive reforms” before it was “too late”.
“Either it chooses wisdom on its own, or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss, God forbid,” King Abdullah said.
Saud Kabli, a political and foreign affairs columnist for the Al Watan newspaper, said the Saudi public was growing increasingly angry about the situation in Syria, which has put pressure on Abdullah to take a tougher stance. “This is the first time that the Saudi government bends to the will of the people on foreign policy,” Kabli said.
Abdullah’s relations with Al Assad have been strained at least since the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. The Syrian government is widely believed to have been involved in the attack.
“[King] Abdullah was extremely close to Hariri,” said Robert Lacey, a British author who has written extensively on Saudi Arabia. “Hariri became a Saudi citizen, he was Saudi’s man in Lebanon. His death was very painful for [King] Abdullah, and he holds a personal grudge against [Al] Assad.”
Beyond humanitarian concerns, Abdullah sees an opportunity to strike a key strategic blow against Iran, Syria’s key ally, analysts and government officials said in interviews.
Al Assad’s government serves as Tehran’s key pipeline for transferring money and arms to Hezbollah, the resistance movement in Lebanon. King Abdullah sees Al Assad’s potential overthrow as a way to choke off that flow and diminish the influence of an increasingly belligerent Iran, officials and analysts said.
“Syria is Iran’s entry into the Arab world,” said one Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Take down Al Assad and you inflict a strategic blow on Iran.” The official said Iran is “really on the ropes” because of international sanctions over its nuclear programme. He said removing an ally as pivotal as Al Assad would make Iran “more vulnerable to sanctions”.