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Landis: Saudi Arabia's New King Has Helped Put Syria's Assad On The Ropes

Saudi King Abdullah talks with newly appointed Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdel-Aziz in Taif June 19, 2012. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has appointed his defence minister, Prince Salman, as heir apparent, opting for stability and a continuation of cau
Saudi Press Agency
Saudi Arabian King Salman (left) talks with his predecessor King Abdullah in 2012. The two men have remarkably different strategys when it comes to dealing with Islamist militants.

Syria observers are questioning whether President Bashar al-Assad's time could be running short after rebels captured two large, northern cities inside of a month. Despite attempts to mount a counteroffensive, Syrian troops have been unable to regain any ground lost in the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour just south of the Turkish border.

Joshua Landis, the author of the widely-read blog Syria Commentand the director of the Center for Middle East Studiesat the University of Oklahoma, told KGOU's World Views militias led by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and other Islamist factions, are better organized and more powerful. But the Assad regime is also weakening as his Alawite power base, already only 12 percent of Syria's population, continues to shrink.

"Maybe close to 100,000 Alawite young men have been killed. There are less than three million Alawites in Syria. So it's taken a real toll," Landis said. "The other religious minorities that normally support him don't want to send their kids out to the front. They're getting killed in big numbers."

But there's an international dimension as well with new leadership in nearby Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year Saudi King Salman ascended to the thrown after the death of his brother King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a proxy war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Tehran is also the main backer of Syria, through troops, advisers, and financial resources. Landis says the late King Abdullah was a cautious ruler, more worried about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic fundamentalists than Iran. But Salman has revolutionized the status quo in the region.

"He's prioritized getting rid of Assad, hurting Iran and Syria, even at the price of arming Nusra and these Islamist militias," Landis said. "And that means that he, Turkey, Qatar, are on the same page to make more weapons, more money."

Saudi Arabia is a strong U.S. ally, and Landis says President Obama still wants Turkey and the Saudis to take a leading role in the region. But it raises questions about what the use of power and Saudi aggresiveness accomplish in the Middle East, and Landis says it could even help Islamists and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

"Once again, the Saudis and the Turks are trying to use the Islamists to get their own ends, thinking that they'll be able to push them aside when it's all over. But we've done that before in Afghanistan, and in Iraq," Landis said. "We don't have good options, and we've been worried about not doing enough, and here is somebody coming along willing to do a lot more."

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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