Christopher Phillips
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Capability and culpability
Iranian and Saudi rivalry in the Syrian conflict

This chapter focuses on Syria as a space where one of the region’s longest-running and most brutal civil conflicts has been subject to the penetration of external powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this chapter, the author asses the utility of different theoretical perspectives from international relations in explaining Iran’s comparative success vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in Syria. The analysis shows that while structural factors clearly were important, the significance of domestic and ideational factors alongside them suggests that purely systemic answers are insufficient alone to explain the conflict’s outcome. The chapter concludes that a neoclassical realist interpretation offers the best explanation for Saudi Arabia’s inability to adapt to the changing external context and make the most of its advantages, due in part to the influence of domestic factors.

The Syrian conflict is a useful case study to explore Iranian and Saudi Arabian rivalry.1 Both states took an active interest in the civil war from the beginning, each seeking an outcome that would benefit its wider regional ambitions. Iran, allied with the Ba’ath regime in Damascus since 1979, resolved early on to aid President Bashar al-Assad in the face of first demonstrations and then an armed insurgency. This initially consisted of an ‘advisory mission’ in early 2011 but, within a few years, had ballooned into vital economic and military support that allowed the embattled Assad to survive. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, was slower to oppose its rival’s ally. Before the uprising ties between Damascus and Riyadh, never especially friendly, had warmed and King Abdullah was cautious to condemn a fellow autocrat for crushing protestors. However, by late 2011 Saudi Arabia had decisively turned on Assad, calling for his departure and urging sanctions. A year later it was sponsoring the opposition movement, sending weapons to armed rebels and urging its ally, the US, to intervene.

However, after a decade of war, Assad has clung on to power. Though it has been costly, Iran is now deeply embedded in Syria, while Saudi Arabia has effectively given up on ousting Assad, ending support for the opposition. This chapter asks how we can explain this comparative strategic defeat for Riyadh and victory for Tehran. It draws on debates within international relations scholarship to ask whether either had a structural advantage going in the conflict, or whether the outcomes were more the result of the decision-making of the ruling elites. Can Iran’s success in Syria be explained primarily by structural factors as systemic realists would argue, with a focus on the international and regional system, material capabilities and international alliances? Alternatively, were ideational tools, such as utilising Shia identity and anti-Western ideology the key to its success, as constructivists would emphasise? Or is Saudi incompetence the better explanation, placing more focus on the domestic factors limiting Riyadh’s foreign policy effectiveness, in contrast to more domestic security from Tehran, as neoclassical realists might argue? This chapter will suggest that all played a role. While the structural factors clearly were important, the significance of domestic and ideational factors alongside them suggests that systemic answers are insufficient alone to explain the conflict’s outcome. Neoclassical realist (NCR) theories help to better explain both Saudi failure and Iranian success by showing how domestic factors interacted with systemic forces after 2011, with ideational sometimes playing a role too. The Iranian leadership proved more adept at taking advantage of the changing regional environment, maximising their material, ideological and international capabilities. In contrast, Saudi Arabia made errors, often due to the limitations of the personnel in charge, failing to utilise the advantages they did have.

Systemic change on the eve of Syria’s war

The 2011 Arab Uprisings heightened the fierceness in the Saudi–Iranian rivalry, providing new arenas of competition like Syria and Yemen, but the contextual systemic change was caused by structural shifts a decade earlier.2 Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia had successfully found ways of preventing this emerging rival from expanding its power considerably in the Middle East. Systemic realists such as Gregory Gause have argued that it did this primarily by building successful international anti-Iran coalitions, first with Iraq, then the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the US. In this it used its material capabilities, primarily vast oil wealth, to build alliances that ‘balanced’ and therefore contained the Iranian threat.3 However, the regional system within which Saudi strategy had thrived shifted as a result of the 2003 Iraq War. This created space and opportunity for Iran that had not hitherto existed. In contrast to before, according to Gause, Saudi Arabia subsequently ‘under-balanced’ its rival and failed to build a coalition to halt Iran’s advance.4

Systemic realists believe the balance of power in an international system, measured by a state’s relative capabilities such as the size of its economy, population, level of development and willingness to convert these into military power, influences a government’s behaviour. Though this structure does not determine their actions it ‘shapes and shoves’, presenting constraints and creating incentives.5 According to this analysis, the 2010s witnessed a shift from a global unipolar balance of power dominated by an unrestrained US, to one that is increasingly multipolar, with a rising China, a militarily resurgent Russia and a more cautious US ‘shaped and shoved’ by how their rivals might react to certain events. Though the Middle East interacts with and is impacted by this global shift in power balance, it witnessed a shift to multipolarity earlier, in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War.6 While the unipolar ‘Pax Americana’ of the 1990s in the Middle East was never as extensive as some have claimed, to an extent the sizeable American presence in the region from the late 1980s did ‘shape and shove’ the US friends’ and enemies’ actions, with concern over how Washington would react to events influencing the decision-making process.7

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry existed before this regional (and later global) shift, but the systemic changes greatly influenced how their enmity played out in the 2000s. The removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq empowered Iran. It not only allowed it to influence Iraqi politics, building clients and allies in a former enemy state, but it also removed a physical obstacle to easier penetration of the wider Middle East. This in turn prompted a change in behaviour from Saudi Arabia, worried by its rival’s expansion. While Riyadh proved unable to rival Tehran for influence in Iraq, it sought to enhance its footprint in Lebanon and Yemen in the face of what it saw as Iranian expansion. The rivalry was asymmetric. Saudi Arabia treated Iran as its primary threat, while Iran saw Saudi Arabia as part of a wider Western threat, led by the US and Israel. From a systemic realist perspective each has different advantages and limitations in terms of material capabilities and international alliances. But the shifts after 2003 were more to Iran’s favour, especially compared to before the Iraq War.

In terms of material capabilities, each had different advantages and limitations. Iran has a larger population, while Saudi Arabia has more disposable wealth. Iran has a bigger conventional military, but Saudi Arabia had more up-to-date equipment, especially its air force.8 Importantly, though, neither state showed an interest or willingness to engage in direct interstate conflict, which gave Iran an advantage as it had superior non-conventional military forces in arenas such as Iraq and, later, Syria. One huge advantage Saudi Arabia had over Iran was its international alliances which, according to systemic realism, could tip the balance to restrain Iran – as was the case until 2003. On paper, Saudi Arabia had more powerful allies than Iran: the US, plus most European and Arab states. In contrast Iran had close economic ties to China, though no more so than Saudi Arabia, and a growing security relationship with Russia. Compared to Saudi Arabia, Iran had for a long time been internationally isolated.9 Yet, as Gregory Gause notes, after 2003, and especially 2011, Riyadh was not able to translate its nominal alliances into successful restraints on Tehran.10 This made the 2003–2011 shift all the more significant as Saudi Arabia was at a structural disadvantage given that the pillar of its previous Iran containment strategy – the US – was becoming more withdrawn after the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Before either became involved in the Syrian war, therefore, the global and regional systemic environment was already shifting to Iran’s favour. The remainder of this chapter will outline further how this had an impact on how both states engaged with the crisis and why Iran ended up on top. However, it is important to note that these pre-2011 shifts were not entirely the result of systemic factors and the systemic realist analysis underplays the role of ideational and domestic factors.11 Ideological appeal was an important asset utilised by both sides, especially given the sectarian element often present in arenas such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Before 2011 both Iran and Saudi Arabia had successfully deployed ideology to mobilise: Saudi Arabia in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Lebanon in the 2000s, and Iran in Lebanon and Iraq in the 1980s and 2000s. More immediately in the wake of 2003, domestic factors interacted with the structural shifts to facilitate the change in Iranian and Saudi polices.12 In Iran hard-liners rose to power, culminating in the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, who were more willing than their predecessors to be expansionist in the Middle East. This was also greatly aided by economic growth that enabled a more activist foreign policy. Domestically in Saudi Arabia, the leadership was thrown by the emergence of Barack Obama, whom they experienced as unfriendly compared to George W. Bush. Throughout his term, the Saudis appeared to prefer to hold a grudge than adapt to the new leader in the White House.13 This would set the scene for Riyadh’s failures in the Syrian war.

Arms, funds and fighters

Once Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in Syria, both made use of their varying material advantages. For Iran, that meant its superiority at utilising non-conventional military forces. The 2011 ‘Advisory Mission’ to Syria was dominated by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, and it was this group that expanded its presence and role in the conflict. By 2013 planes were regularly flying from Iran to Damascus carrying money, weapons and personnel, while the Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani was playing a leading role in the war effort.14 Importantly, though, Iran did not commit many of its own troops, primarily just a few thousand Quds Force officers. Instead, Soleimani’s role was threefold. Firstly, he recruited foreign Shia fighters, neither Iranian nor Syrian, to fight on Assad’s behalf. Initially the lead was taken by Iraqi fighters that Soleimani had worked with against the US in Iraq in the 2000s, and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. As the war went on, he created new brigades of Afghani and Pakistani Shia fighters, the Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zainebiyoun, respectively, to supplement his depleted forces. Secondly, he reorganised the Syrian military. This included the creating of a new National Defence Force that channelled various pro-Assad irregular militia into an effective military body that took on local guard duties, freeing Assad’s regular military to fight on the front line. Finally, Soleimani took a leading role in strategic military decisions, such as withdrawing Assad’s forces from the less defensible peripheral east and focusing attention on certain key battlegrounds.

Even though Saudi Arabia had some superior military assets, notably its air force, it was not willing to deploy these in Syria. Instead it used its previously reliable asset of money to fund and support a range of opposition fighting forces. Riyadh was slower than Turkey and Qatar to support the armed rebels, but by 2012 it was using Syrian tribal contacts, its Lebanese contact Okab Sakr and other personal ties to funnel money to various fighting groups, mostly aligned with the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA). By late 2012 it arranged for a large shipment of Croatian weaponry to be sent to rebels in southern Syria via Jordan. Ties with this group eventually became the foundation for Saudi Arabia’s support, alongside the US, France and Jordan of ‘the Southern Front’, a group of FSA fighters who largely rejected the growing Islamism present among most rebels. That said, Riyadh simultaneously arranged to finance Jaysh al-Islam, a Salafist group it backed as a rival to more radical jihadists emerging within the opposition such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra.15 Yet the deployment of Iranian and Saudi capabilities yielded different results. Iran, after much fighting, secured Assad’s survival. In contrast, Saudi Arabia had pulled its funding for all the rebel groups it backed by 2017 and both the Southern Front and Jaysh al-Islam were militarily defeated a year later.

This fits the systemic realist analysis. Iran’s superior capabilities – its access to more effective non-conventional military forces – contributed to its success. This was aided by the regional system. The multipolar regional environment ensured that Saudi Arabia was not the only regional sponsor of opposition fighters, with Qatar and Turkey also playing a prominent role. While Ankara and Doha shared Riyadh’s goal of regime change, they were not aligned and favoured a Muslim Brotherhood government after Assad – anathema to Saudi Arabia. As a result the three powers backed different rebel militia, contributing to splits in the opposition movement, lessening their effectiveness. In contrast, Iran was the only regional power backing Assad, and the only power to send him direct military support for the first four years of the war prior to Russia’s intervention in 2015. The regional system, therefore, contributed to the disunity of the rebels and the unity of Assad’s forces.

However, these systemic explanations give only a partial picture and ideational and domestic factors also contributed to Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s relative failures and successes in Syria. It is important, for example, to consider why Iran was more effective than Saudi Arabia at mobilising foreign fighters. The systemic realist emphasis on deploying resources such as material reward, that is, paying a salary, was not insignificant. Many of the Fatemiyoun and Zainebiyoun fighters, for example, were poor refugees living in Iran, often promised full Iranian citizenship as well as a salary in exchange for service. But ideational appeal was also significant. Shiism was an important identity that Iran emphasised to bring fighters to Syria. For example, along with the Afghan and Pakistani Shia in the Fatemiyoun and Zainebiyoun, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi militia such as the al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade mobilised along religious/sect lines. The al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade had initially formed specifically to defend the Sayyida Zaynab Shia shrine in south Damascus from rebel attacks. By mid-2013 up to 10,000 Syrian and foreign Shia, especially Iraqi, had joined the brigade, which took its name from a son of Imam Ali, a Shia icon.16 Similarly, Hezbollah had been present in Syria since at least 2012, and its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah used sectarian language in televised speeches to justify its presence.17 However, it is important to note that sect was not the only ideational lever Iran successfully pulled. Since the 2000s Iran also posed as a leader of the anti-Western ‘Axis of Resistance’, appealing to non-Shia such as Hamas in Palestine. This was not lost on Nasrallah, who in his speeches blamed the US and Israel for the war in Syria as much as ‘takfiris’ (a term meaning radical jihadists but often directed only at Sunnis). In contrast to al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade, Nasrallah was speaking to his supporters beyond the Shia.18 Similarly, the Syrian militia within the National Defence Forces that Iran helped to build included both religion-based Shia, Christian, Druze and Alawi groups as well as more ideological entities focussed on being anti-Western, pro-Ba’athist and Syrian nationalist. The ideological levers Iran utilised were diverse and situational – with different ties emphasised according to the groups it was trying to mobilise.19

Saudi Arabia arguably had the potential for more ideational appeal, but did not reap the same reward. It also attempted to utilise different ties: pitching itself as a leader of Sunni Muslims against Shia Iran, and of Arabs against Persians, yet with limited success.20 Having spent decades challenging the legitimacy of Arab nationalism, its appeals to Arabs unsurprisingly received little enthusiasm. Moreover, Arab nationalism was a cornerstone of Ba’athism, so Riyadh likely correctly realised it would not attract much support within the opposition. Its Sunni Islamic credentials were stronger, and its relationship with Jaysh al-Islam had a religious element. The father of Jaysh’s founder, Zahran Alloush, was a Saudi Salafist preacher, and the group’s creation was brokered by Saudi intelligence utilising transnational Salafist networks. Indeed, Alloush made some explicitly sectarian statements, saying he would ‘cleanse the Levant of the filth of Rafidis and Rafidism [Shia]’, and that ‘the Shi’a are still despicable and pitiful through history’.21 Yet unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia’s utilisation of this ideational tool was limited at best. Again, structural factors were a hindrance. Religiously motivated Sunni fighters had rival international patrons in Syria: Qatar and Turkey. While Iran was largely alone in its pitch as the voice of religiously motivated Shia fighters, Saudi Arabia could not unite religious Sunnis behind itself alone. Domestic factors also came into play. Compared to Iran, Saudi Arabia felt far more threatened by Islamists at home and so was reluctant to sponsor them. Indeed, it only turned to Jaysh once it became clear that Riyadh’s preferred rebel grouping, the more secular former army officers of the FSA, were losing ground in the intra-opposition rivalries to Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamists and al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists. Yet even once it sponsored Jaysh it actively encouraged them to moderate their sectarian impulses. Under Saudi tutelage Jaysh watered down its sectarian slogans, first under Zahran and then under his cousin, Mohammed Alloush, who replace Zahran after his death in 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to back either rebels aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or al-Qaeda, despite sometimes being effective fighters, shows not only the importance of ideational factors in explaining Riyadh’s relative failures in Syria, but also of domestic concerns. Saudi views of both Islamist actors came primarily from the threat they posed at home, with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) having launched several attacks within Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, and the MB having helped form the Sahwa Saudi opposition movement. Yet this concern was not the only way that Saudi engagement with the Syrian opposition was conditioned by domestic factors as neoclassical realists would assert. The limitations of the Saudi personnel involved in liaising with and arming the Syrian opposition played a part in their failures. ‘The Syria file’ was initially handled by King Abdullah’s son, Abdulaziz, but, with Riyadh’s clients not making the headway expected, he was replaced by veteran Prince Bandar bin Sultan in July 2012. Bandar had played a prominent role in arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s and so was presumed to be an expert in non-conventional warfare. However, he proved to be of limited talents. He enjoyed some personal contacts among Syria’s tribes and Salafists and leveraged these to forge the alliance with Jaysh al-Islam. However, despite his confidence Bandar proved incapable and was unable to marshal rebel forces into a united front. He exaggerated the influence of Jaysh, for example, who in reality rarely stretched beyond the Ghouta region of Damascus. A sign of his limited success was his removal from the Syrian file in April 2014, to be replaced by Muhammad bin Nayef – a more modest character who seemed to recognise the limited scope for Saudi success by this stage and focussed his attention primarily on the Southern Front.

In contrast the personnel behind Iran’s Syrian policy were more competent and effective. Much has been written about Soleimani, who evidently played a key role in engineering Assad’s survival, as outlined above. However, Iran’s Syrian policy was not simply down to the whims of one man, as it appeared to be in Saudi Arabia, but rather something that was institutionalised in the IRGC. Soleimani was not the only IRGC officer dispatched to Syria. The former commander of the IRGC’s Greater Tehran unit, Hossein Hamadani, who had dealt with the Iranian regime’s crushing of the 2009 Green Movement unrest, was also dispatched in the 2011 advisory group and played a key role in plotting early counter-insurgency strategy. Moreover, when Hamadani, and later Soleimani, was killed, this did not cause a major shift in Iranian policy towards Syria. While individuals were important, and certainly Soleimani’s expertise was missed, they were cogs in a well-run pro-Assad operation, rather than the sole driver as individuals were in Saudi Arabia. Again, the importance of leading elites and domestic power structures playing a role in the effectiveness of Syrian policy.

International and regional alliances

Alongside material capabilities, systemic realists also make much of international alliances as assets for foreign policy that are tied to the international and regional system. That Saudi Arabia was unable to leverage its alliances to get its preferred outcome in Syria, but Iran maximised its far weaker alliance hand, seems to support the systemic realist explanation. As discussed above, Riyadh had a much longer list of more powerful allies than Iran. Yet Saudi Arabia was unable to form a united front with regional allies despite sharing the same goal of toppling Assad and was not able to persuade its major international ally, the US, to intervene. In contrast Iran did persuade Russia, a state with which it enjoyed far less closeness than Riyadh did with Washington, to intervene in 2015. A systemic realist would argue that the shift towards multipolarity at both the regional and international levels meant that Saudi Arabia’s formerly formidable alliances were of less value. Similarly, this change opened space not only for Iran but also for Russia that had not existed before, shifting the advantage to Iran.

At the regional level, at first Saudi Arabia did present a united front with key allies against Assad. Cooperation was especially close with Qatar, with the two co-sponsoring actions against Assad at the Arab League in late 2011, including sanctions and freezing Syria’s membership. Similarly, Saudi Arabia endorsed and helped finance a Qatar-led Arab League Peace Plan in December 2011 that sent neutral monitors to Syria but was designed to pave the way for Assad’s departure. The extent of Qatari–Saudi cooperation was displayed by the events that followed this plan’s failure. On 19 January 2012 Riyadh announced the plan had failed due to Assad’s repeated violations, and that it was withdrawing funding and its monitors. The very same day a new Arab League plan was announced by Qatar, then holding the revolving presidency, that explicitly called for Assad to stand down. When Assad rejected this both states called for the Arab League to refer the matter to the UN, which it did. A month later, at a ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting aimed at coordinating the international opposition to Assad, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar called for the anti-Assad rebels to be armed.22

Yet this was the high point of Saudi cooperation with regional allies. As discussed above, Qatar and Turkey favoured Muslim Brotherhood-aligned rebels, whom Saudi Arabia loathed, leading to different militia being sponsored. The same story played out with the opposition in exile. As Saudi Arabia increasingly fell out with Turkey and Qatar, not just over Syria but also Egypt where the Brotherhood had been elected to power, each sponsored different factions in the exiled Syrian opposition groups: the Syrian National Council (SNC) and then the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). This reached a climax in summer 2013 when Riyadh actively wrestled the SOC from Qatari influence, demanding more power be given to its allies at the expense of Doha’s. Such was the extent of Saudi and Qatari infighting that Moaz al-Khatib, the SOC president, resigned in 2013 in protest.23 While this struggle ultimately ended in Riyadh’s favour it came at a cost: the SOC was increasingly seen as a foreign puppet beset by divisions and not a viable government in exile. This deterred both armed rebels on the ground from aligning themselves with the SOC and any potential plotters from within the Assad regime to throw in their lot – all benefitting Assad and Iran. In keeping with the systemic realist analysis, had the regional system been bipolar or unipolar, as in the 1990s, Qatar and Turkey would have been less likely to pursue such varying agendas. Alternatively, Saudi Arabia would have been under more pressure to put aside its anti-MB reservations and align in a united anti-Iran front. However, multipolarity brought with it the emergence of a new Turkey–Qatar–MB power bloc in addition to the Saudi-led and Iranian-led groupings, which contributed to ineffective support for the Syrian opposition.

Multipolarity at the international level similarly played a role in Riyadh’s inability to persuade the US to intervene decisively in Syria. The Obama administration was reluctant to get dragged in, despite calling for Assad’s departure in August 2011 and militarily aiding a select group of rebels from 2012. Saudi Arabia, like Turkey and Qatar, had always favoured direct US military action as the route out of the crisis, urging a Libya-style intervention on several occasions in 2012–2013. In summer 2013, one appeared imminent after Assad had crossed Obama’s self-declared ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons. Obama’s team drew up a plan for a retaliatory strike and Saudi Arabia was heavily supportive. Saudi Arabia and Qatar even reportedly offered to underwrite the full cost of the military operation.24 Riyadh also proposed putting a motion to the UN General Assembly to give the US legal cover and volunteered its air force to counter any potential Iranian retaliation in the Gulf. However, not only did Obama then call off the strike, opting instead for a deal with Russia to get Assad to disarm his chemical arsenal peacefully, but Washington did not inform Riyadh of its U-turn. Instead the Saudi leadership discovered the news from CNN, illustrating Obama’s disregard for its Saudi ally, infuriating King Abdullah. Again, systemic realism offers some explanation for this. Obama was incredibly reluctant to get sucked into what he saw as another Middle Eastern quagmire after the traumas of Iraq and the relative weakness of the US economy after the 2008 crash. The fact he negotiated with Russia to disarm Assad rather than impose a settlement with the threat of American force illustrated how the unipolar era was coming to an end.

However, while this structural analysis is useful in explaining Saudi Arabia’s inability to effectively utilise its alliances in Syria, it once again offers only a limited picture. Domestic factors and ideology were not insignificant. Regarding the US, a combination of personality clashes and diplomatic incompetence hampered Saudi efforts. Obama and Abdullah didn’t get on personally. While Bush’s amiable character had fitted well with the Saudi personal approach to politics, including numerous invitations to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Obama’s more detached professionalism left Abdullah cold. This was all made much worse by Obama’s decision to abandon Egyptian president and Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak at the beginning of the Arab Uprisings, which enraged Abdullah further. Yet Riyadh was also naive and stubborn. Commentators have noted that Saudi diplomats, especially the DC team, were too slow to adapt to the new administration and simply presumed all would continue as it did under Bush.25 Rather than adapt around the new administration, Saudi leaders tried in vain to change it. For example, at their first meeting, in Riyadh in 2009, Abdullah delivered Obama an hour-long lecture on the dangers of Iran, much to the president’s frustration. The significance of strong personal ties was seen after Obama’s departure from office, when the new Crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, won support for his foreign policy schemes in Yemen and Qatar from Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, with whom he enjoyed close ties. However, despite this endorsement, neither scheme proved successful, perhaps suggesting that closer ties with the US could not overcome structural factors alone.

The role of leading figures was also significant in Saudi Arabia’s decision to step back and ultimately end its role in Syria. The replacement of Bandar by Muhammad bin Nayef was the first step in this: Nayef being more cautious and less convinced by Bandar’s ambitious plans. More significant was the death of Abdullah in 2015 and his replacement by his brother, Salman, who soon delegated key foreign policy decisions to his own son, Mohammad bin Salman (MbS). While Abdullah had a personal connection to Syria, being married to a Syrian and having a personal stake in the war, Salman and MbS were less sentimental. Moreover, MbS soon became distracted by conflicts of his own: the invasion of Yemen in 2015 and the blockade of Qatar in 2017. As Riyadh’s resources were increasingly taken up with these crises, and involvement in Syria going nowhere, Saudi Arabia cut its losses and pulled most of its support to Syria’s rebels by 2018. However, both the Yemen and Qatari polices were highly personalised around MbS and more resources might well continue to have been spent on Syria had MbS not risen to power. That said, Saudi loss of interest coincided with Russia’s intervention in Syria – six months after its invasion of Yemen – a structural shift in Syria’s conflict that further deterred Riyadh’s involvement. Here we see the domestic (change of leadership) and structural (Russia’s involvement) both impacting Riyadh’s decision to step back.

Regional alliances were less vital to Iran in Syria, although they were valuable. Most significantly Iran’s allies in Iraq and Lebanon rejected Arab League sanctions on Damascus. This ensured that, even though Syria’s trade declined considerably as a result of the war, vital lifelines were still available to Beirut and the overland links with Iran through Iraq. Neither of these states would be considered exclusively Iranian allies, as both enjoyed close ties with the US and, in Lebanon’s case, Saudi Arabia. Their defiance of both Washington and Riyadh on the question of sanctions, therefore, points to the significance of the region’s multipolarity: that both were unconcerned about the consequences of stepping out of line, knowing this would not make them pariahs. That said, domestic politics was also important. At the beginning of the conflict, Syria was a vital trading partner for both Iraq and Lebanon and both governments saw the potential risks in cutting ties. Personal ties with Iran also played a role. Hezbollah were a keystone in Lebanon’s coalition government and would have steadfastly rejected sanctioning Syria. In Iraq many key leaders had ties to Iran, including the prime minister in 2011, Nouri al-Maliki. The minister of transport, Hadi al-Amiri, who was responsible for overseeing many of the flights that passed through Iraqi airspace from Tehran to Damascus carrying weapons, ammunition and Quds Force officers, was head of the Badr Corps (a pro-Iranian Shia militia) and a close ally of Soleimani.26

Far more important was Iran’s successful courting of Russia to intervene directly in the conflict in 2015. Before then Russia and Iran enjoyed a degree of cordiality, but certainly not an alliance and nothing on the scale of Riyadh and Washington. Iran was a customer for Russian weaponry, like much of the Middle East, and Moscow acted as a defender of Iran at the UN. Yet even that was far from steadfast and Russia endorsed the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2006. Yet Moscow did have an interest in Assad’s survival and had, independently of Tehran, vetoed multiple resolutions condemning Damascus at the UN Security Council, as well as supplying a generous line of arms and credit. Russia’s entry into the war in 2015, when it sent its air force and special forces in an intervention that would guarantee Assad’s rule, was far from inevitable. As discussed, the multipolar structure of the international and regional system made Russian action more inviting, given Moscow feared less the response of the no-longer-hegemonic US, something seemingly confirmed by Obama’s decision not to strike militarily in 2013. Yet domestic factors again, particularly the significance of leading personnel, should not be overlooked. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not decide to act independently, but rather was subject to Iranian lobbying. Despite Iranian support and reorganisation, by spring 2015 Assad was still losing ground and a new rebel coalition (primary backed by Turkey), the Jaysh al-Fateh, was threatening his coastal heartlands. Alarmed, Iran invited Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to Tehran to urge further Russian involvement in the conflict. That August, Soleimani was dispatched to Moscow to flesh out plans of Russian intervention. In further evidence of the importance of personnel, the Quds Force general proved highly persuasive of Putin. It likely helped that he was an effective commander and Putin could be confident that his forces could work effectively on the ground when supported by the Russian air force. This was seen when, prior to the Moscow meeting, Putin reportedly emphasised the importance of the Iranian general when he told Tehran, ‘Okay we will intervene. Send Qassem Soleimani.’27

We therefore see a contrasting picture of Saudi and Iranian leveraging of their international alliances. Saudi Arabia had a stronger hand on paper, but in reality, the shift in regional and international system made its alliances less formidable, which it then made worse through poor management and personal and ideological differences. In contrast, Iran leveraged its more limited alliances well. It was structurally aided by the shifting international climate, but individuals such as Soleimani still showed their diplomatic skill to gain the desired results.


Saudi and Iranian competition in the Syrian conflict points to interesting conclusions about the interaction of international systemic, domestic and ideational factors. The conflict broke out in an international and regional systemic environment that was more favourable to Iran than to Saudi Arabia: one in which Riyadh’s long-term ally and the lynchpin of its Iran containment strategy was retreating. That said, Riyadh still possessed strategic advantage over Iran in some areas, it just proved unable to utilise them well. It had a superior air force that it was unwilling to deploy in Syria. It had access to greater wealth to pay local fighters but fears of Islamists and jihadists among Syria’s opposition deterred it from matching or exceeding Iran’s spending in Syria. While its ideological appeal, including Sunni sect identity, theoretically had a wider audience than Iran’s, it was unable to translate this into effective unconventional warfare. It likewise had a closer relationship to more powerful international allies than Iran yet, again, was unable to translate this into meaningful intervention.

This brief analysis has suggested that Saudi Arabia’s inability to adapt to the changing external context and make the most of its advantages had much to do with domestic factors, including the personalities involved, underlining the value of the NCR approach. Confidence in Bandar bin Sultan’s abilities at asymmetric warfare in Syria proved unfounded, for example, and he was evidently no Soleimani. Rivalry with other potential allies against Iran, like Turkey and Qatar, limited both Saudi Arabia’s ideological appeal in Syria and the effectiveness of the forces it was sponsoring. Domestic fears of the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists likewise led to only a limited engagement with these proxies. The poor personal relationships with Barack Obama and the inability to adapt to the new president contributed to a weak relationship with the US at a time when Riyadh needed as much goodwill and support from its retreating ally as it could get.

Iran did make errors along the way, and Saudi Arabia did land some successful blows. In one example of sectarianisation, it successfully characterised Iran as a ‘Shia’ power, challenging Iran’s earlier claims to regional leadership across the Muslim world.28 Whereas in the 2000s Iran’s leaders, alongside Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, were popular among non-Shia Muslims, the Syrian war shattered that support. Similarly, Saudi Arabia helped nudge Trump to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reapply sanctions, with Iran’s meddling in Syria cited as one of the main reasons. However, this may deter Iran from expanding further, but a retreat from the strategic gains it has made in Syria since 2011 seems unlikely. In this it has played its hand far better: taking advantage of the international context better than its rival. It more effectively deployed its allies, maximised its more limited financial clout and made the most of a limited relationship with Russia to bring about joint intervention in Syria. Moreover, it deployed a range of ideological weapons to develop an effective network of fighters – only some of which were mobilised by sect, others by being part of the anti-Western ‘Axis of Resistance’. In short, both Iran and Saudi Arabia had capabilities and assets that they could deploy in Syria, but only the former utilised them to maximum advantage. While structural constraints brought on by international and regional systemic change did not aid Riyadh, its leadership is still ultimately culpable for the errors and misjudgements made.


1 This chapter builds on ideas and concepts first published as ‘Rivalry Amid Systemic Change: Iranian and Saudi Competition in the Post-American Middle East’, in POMEPS Studies 38: Sectarianism and International Relations, 2020, pp. 7–12.
2 C. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 18–25.
3 F. Gregory Gause III, ‘Ideologies, Alliances, and Underbalancing in the New Middle East Cold War’, in POMEPS Studies 16: International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East, 2015, pp. 16–20.
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Saudi Arabia and Iran

The struggle to shape the Middle East


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