A convergence of Saudi and French interests in the Levant is leading to a tighter alignment between the two countries. This partnership is important for both sides, but more so for Riyadh, which is trying to compensate for the loss of U.S. support for Saudi efforts toward regime change in Syria. From the kingdom's point of view, Paris' historical relations with Syria and Lebanon and France's lesser role on the global stage than the United States support the Saudi pursuit of foreign policy independence and leadership of the Arab world.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced Sunday that Saudi Arabia had pledged $3 billion in assistance to the Lebanese military, effectively doubling its annual budget and allowing it to purchase arms from France. The same day, Saudi King Abdullah met with French President Francois Hollande in Saudi Arabia to discuss a joint strategy for Syria and Lebanon. These developments came two days after a prominent moderate Sunni politician from Lebanon's Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance, Mohamed Chatah, was assassinated in a car bombing in Beirut.
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After the United States backed away from a military intervention against the Syrian regime in August and began publicly engaging with al Assad's main regional patron, Iran, the following month, the Saudis decided to bolster their support for the Syrian rebels. However, Riyadh understands that it cannot achieve what it wants to in Syria unless it gets a better handle on the situation in Lebanon. This is in part because Lebanon's most powerful political-militant group, the Shiite and pro-Iranian Hezbollah, has played a key role in the Syrian regime's success countering rebel advances.
Chatah's assassination, which March 14 Alliance leader Saad al-Hariri blamed on Hezbollah, has provided an opening for the Saudis to become more assertive in Lebanon (though Beirut's deal with Paris likely was in the works before the incident). But the Saudis do not want to go it alone in Lebanon and be accused of stoking the sectarian war in the Levant or, worse, empowering al Qaeda in the process.
This is where French support is critical. France has deep historical linkages to the Levant, particularly Lebanon, where Paris has been supporting anti-Hezbollah forces for the past few decades. More recently, since the Arab Spring and the start of the Syrian civil war, the French have been the most ardent Western supporters of the Syrian rebels. The country now appears to be positioning itself for lucrative military deals in the Gulf region.
Thus, the French-Saudi connection is natural. But questions remain about what this alliance can do to weaken the combined forces of Iran, Iraq, the al Assad regime and Hezbollah. In this joint Levantine venture, the Saudis will invest cash and human resources — namely, fighters — and try to manage what now appears to be an expanding war in the region. The French will likely provide military and intelligence resources, as well international legitimacy to what would otherwise be seen as a sectarian Arab/Muslim initiative.
In many ways, Riyadh and Paris make for an odd couple, given that Saudi Arabia is ruled by a Salafist monarchy while France is an ultra-secular republic. Geopolitics, however, transcends ideologies and often creates unlikely relationships — just like the one the United States and Iran are trying to forge. Still, for France, working with the Saudis to undermine Iranian influence in the region is risky. A smaller Iranian footprint in the Levant could have the unintended consequence of enhancing the fortunes of jihadists, who are not friends with the Saudis and are considered enemies of the French.
But if there is any force that has a chance of containing the jihadists, it is the Saudis. Most Syrian rebels are jihadists, but the Saudis are trying to control the majority of them through the creation of the Islamic Front, which includes all jihadist factions but the two largest. In other words, Riyadh's focus is on fighting Iran, the Shiites and al Assad while still trying to isolate al Qaeda. No power but Saudi Arabia has the leverage to do this.
This explains France's calculus, despite its risks. Saudi Arabia is the only major power left in the Arab world after the fall of Baathist Iraq, the weakening of Egypt's military regime and the war in Syria, so Paris has little choice but to work with Riyadh. It is too early to tell whether the Saudi-French partnership will achieve its goals, but their joint effort will undoubtedly aggravate matters in Lebanon, and the wider war in the Levant will continue to intensify.