While Secretary of State Kerry continues to shuttle back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah in search of an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and Congress frets over when and if to impose new sanctions on Iran, in Syria the flash point of the growing Sunni-Shi’a divide manifests itself in more concrete ways. Last week, Syrian state-run television broadcast a gruesome report on the killing of a group of Syrian rebels. (HT to the Alternative Angle blog). The brutality of the images from the conflict is nothing new, nor is the penchant in parts of the Arab world for parading dead enemies before television cameras.
But there is more at work here than the usual barbarism found all too regularly in the Middle East. A clear message is being sent. The focus of the Syrian government “report” is the fact that the dead rebels on display are Saudi. The broadcast even highlights the Al Rajhi Bank (based in Saudi Arabia) account information allegedly recovered from one of the corpses. The Assad regime’s message is two-fold: the first message is domestic – to discredit the rebels as foreign fighters who are being resisted by loyal Syrians. The second message is to the Saudis and their Sunni allies. The Assad regime, and by extension its Iranian overlord, is serving notice to the Sunni monarchies that it knows who is backing the Syrian rebels and it will deal with them mercilessly.
President Obama may believe that last month Iran entered “a new era of engagement with the world” but the “engagement” actually being played out between Sunnis and Shi’a in Syria – and by proxy between Iran and the Saudis – is of a very old and very lethal kind. With the non-Islamist opposition in Syria (led by the Free Syrian Army) increasingly marginalized, the U.S. has signaled a new willingness to engage “moderate” (Sunni) Islamist groups opposed to the Assad regime, but for now the shift seems more cosmetic than substantive, with no immediate promises of weapons or training on offer. The Saudis and the Gulf states allied with them are taking a less passive approach in supporting the Army of Islam, the more radical Islamist opposition in Syria. This appears to be less a matter of ideology than pragmatism – or even survival. As the images broadcast on Syrian television attest, the stakes for the Sunni Arab states in this conflict are nothing less than life and death.