Civil War in Syria

Written by Bilal Zameer 11:47 am International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

The Civil War in Syria: The Role of Iran and Saudi Arabia

In the quest to become the regional hegemon, Iran and Saudi Arabia have backed governments, militias, and organizations based on sectarian lines in the Middle East. While Tehran is financially and militarily supporting the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Syria, Riyadh has resorted to backing the Syrian rebels and jihadist groups, like the Army of Islam, Jaish al-Fatah, and Ahrar al-Sham, against the regime. The author argues that the proxy war in Syria, while only a battle for supremacy for Iran and Saudi Arabia, has devastated the Syrians and turned the state into a haven for extremist groups.
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About the Author(s)
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Bilal Zameer has completed his bachelor's in international relations from SZABIST, Islamabad.  Currently, he is interning at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research, a research institute located in Islamabad.


The civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, was an internal uprising that has now transformed into a proxy war between major global powers. Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria since 2000, has managed to hold on to power throughout the conflict. Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are engaged in a national, doctrinal, and tactical conflict with each other in the Middle East. The conflict is based on ethnic – Arabs against Persians – and ideological – Sunni against Shia – lines.

Both of the countries are trying to be the “regional hegemon’’. Iran gives Syria geostrategic importance. It is the bridge to offer help to its alliances in the opposition hub against Israel and safeguard Iran’s doctrinally legitimacy as a protector of Shiite Islam and a foe of what it regards as Sunni radicalism.

The study aims to conduct in-depth research on the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the civil war in Syria. The collected data was analyzed to identify the proxy war conducted by Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria and their interests. The approach of sabotaging one another in order to gain regional power has tainted the whole region.

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The Middle East’s instability has the potential to destabilize the region’s stability. Syria has become a prime target for extremism and huge weaponization, with Iran and KSA mostly funding these threats. There have been several other reasons for the instability in Syria, particularly Russian intervention, however, Saudi Arabia and Iran remain the primary causes of instability and anarchy in the state.


Almost a decade of armed internal conflict continues to rage unabated in Syria. The civil war in Syria has devastated the country’s economy and displaced – both internally and externally – half of the country’s population. Estimates by the United Nation shows, that around 400,000 people have lost their lives in Syria since the start of the conflict.

As of January 2019, more than 5.6 million have migrated from their homeland, while more than six million have been internally displaced. Abundant refugees have escaped to Jordan and Lebanon, while more than 3.4 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, and many have taken shelter in Europe.

The World Bank’s 2020 report states that the battle has “decimating consequences for Syria’s financial system” because of the demolition of physical and human resources, constrained movement, and collapse of monetary organizations. Syria’s GDP contracted by 63 percent between 2010 to 2016. In December 2019, the Syrian pound quickly lost its value, causing a general spike in the cost of staple products. International sanctions against Syria have also strengthened the negative impact on the Syrian economy.

While the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad seems to be clinging to power against a hotchpotch of non-state actors, Syria’s neighbors, regional and extra-regional countries, continue to support either of the warring sides to safeguard their national interests. The prominent power contenders within the region, among others, include Iran and the KSA.

The Formation of Blocs in the Civil War in Syria

The current wave of instability in Syria is related to the 2011 Arab Spring, which swept throughout the Arab world. In Syria, the first public demonstration against the Bashar-led Ba’athist regime took place on 15th March 2011. In April 2011, the Syrian army fired on demonstrators across the country, which turned the demonstration into an armed rebellion (Laub, 2021).

The subsequent defection within the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) led to the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which initiated an armed struggle to overthrow the Ba’athist regime. In late 2011, the Al-Nusra Front—a branch of Al-Qaeda—entered the Syrian theatre to fight against the regime. Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shia militia, entered the battle to assist the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) (Laub, 2021).

By the mid-year of 2011, Syria’s neighbors begun to riven into pro- and anti-Assad camps. An anti-Assad coalition comprising of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey was framed in the second half of 2011. The United States of America, the European Union (EU), and the Arab League (AL) imposed sanctions on the Syrian regime, with a focus on penalizing senior individuals associated with the Assad regime.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime’s long-standing partners – Iran and Russia – proceeded to help by propping it up. International divisions came to the fore when in October 2011 when Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution aimed at denouncing the Ba’athist regime (Jones, Wittes, & Yerkes, 2017).

The Iran–Saudi Arabia intermediary strife, some of the time also alluded to as the Middle Eastern Cold War, is the progressing battle for power in the Middle East. The two countries have given different degrees of help to rival sides in the power struggle in the civil war in Syria. The uprising of Arab Spring altered the geopolitical dynamics with the contest for supremacy in the region, reaching a new level.

Throughout the Arab Spring, both states backed contrasting parties in the regional conflict. Tehran openly backed the demonstrators in Tunisia, Bahrain, and Egypt—nations that were governed by the Sunni dictators who shared favorable relations with KSA. Iran and Saudi Arabia were also on contrasting sides when the uprising reached Damascus.

The US was initially hesitant to provide weapons to anti-Ba’athist regime elements due to fears that they may end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked terror groups. However, later the US began a humble program to train and equip a couple of vetted rebel groups (Pearson & Sanders, 2019). The Syrian government kept on getting weapons from Iran and the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah.

By late 2012, Hezbollah started sending its own fighters into Syria to fight the rebels (Wood, 2012). Iran’s direct military intervention in Syria did not achieve significant progress. Therefore, Iran convinced Russia to participate militarily. Russia participated on the side of Assad for political and strategic reasons.

It is completely against the concept of externally supported regime change. Similarly, Russia intends to hold on to Khmemeim Airbase in Latakia, Syria (Reuters, 2020) in order to maintain its presence in the Mediterranean region. The help of Russia and Iran has ensured that the tide of fighting has turned in favor of the Ba’athist regime (Goodarzi, 2020).

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are endeavoring to fulfill their agenda of regional hegemony by succeeding in Syria. However, both are constrained by serious power rivalry to impose their agenda. The impact of this power struggle over Syria has also spilled into other parts of the Middle East, which has tremendously worsened their relations. This study looks into the power struggle between Iran and KSA over Syria and how both are engaged in a zero-sum game in an attempt to advance their national interests.

Research Questions

Both Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continue to remain engaged in supporting their respective ally in a multi-actor play shot in Syria. This research raises the following questions:

  1. How has the rivalry between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran contributed to deterioration in the civil war in Syria?
  2. What are the conflicting interests of KSA and Iran over the power struggle in Syria?

Literature Review

Since the conflict erupted in Syria in 2011, there is plenty of literature available on the overall dynamics of the civil war. Though scholars have debated both the internal and external dynamics of the conflict, a major focus has remained on the internal dynamics, mainly focusing on the role of non-state actors. This is because terrorism remains a major threat to international peace, and many global terrorist organizations are active in Syria in an attempt to create a niche for themselves in future Syria.

Kargin (2018) mainly focuses on the causes of the civil war in Syria. These causes include the economic problems, the collapse of the once-important agricultural sector, and the neoliberal and privatization policies of Assad’s administration which resulted in a new social and economic class inequality beneficial for the new bourgeoisie. In addition, social factors were at work as well other than the economic factors that led Syria into war.

The civil war in Syria may have seemed foreseeable, given the unnecessary control, force, and violence to which the Syrian administration subjected the nation’s residents. These factors all worked together to create an atmosphere primed for a power struggle. Besides the economic causes, the regime’s incapability, bad governance, dominance over its own citizens, and its lack of acceptance of any opposition, served as the social factors that led to the war.

Berti and Paris (2014) discuss the preeminent historical and political drivers behind the reinforcing of sectarian elements inside Syria, emphasizing the territorial impact of this sectarian pattern. The article tries to place sectarianism in context, taking note of the commitment of both domestic and regional political components to the recovery of pre-attributed identities.

They attempt to incorporate sectarianism into a more extensive illustrative structure, beyond a shortsighted Sunni versus Shiite story. Furthermore, they analyze the effect of arising sectarian and in-group pressures on the “day after” in Syria.

Laub (2021) deliberated on the rise of Arab Spring that began in December 2010, when a Tunisian fruit seller criticizing corruption and police harassment, set himself afire. Inspired by these events, young students of Deraa, Syria, painted the slogan “The people want the fall of the regime” on a school wall. They were detained and tormented led to the wave of demonstrations spreading in the country.

According to Laub, turncoats from Assad’s troops declared the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). FSA fighters drifted to Islamist brigades and the Gulf countries provided them with the funds and weapons needed to cause great loss to Assad’s army on the battlefield. Al-Qaeda militants, keen to benefit from Syria’s disorder, exploited the regime’s torture and killing. In January 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra declared itself Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and in the same month, Al-Qaeda’s Amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recruited Sunnis from all over the globe and emphasized Jihad against Assad’s regime.

Alipoor (2018) stated that the United States military invasion of Iraq (2003) and the swing in the balance of power in the region have promoted a strain in the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their conflict for regional domination has portrayed two contrasting political ideologies in the region, which have been used as a tool to follow their own benefits and regional allies.

In addition, through proxy wars, they initiate sectarianism in fragile states of the region. One of the disputes that have damaged the relationship between the two countries is the Syrian civil war. Moreover, the author explains the rivalry and proxies between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian crisis. The Iranian and Saudi administrations are involved in a proxy war in the Syrian crisis endeavor to raise their power and decrease the foe’s influence.

Barnes-Dacey (2018) has stated how the nine long years of the civil war in Syria have turned into an international conflict. What started as domestic criticism against Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule, quickly escalated to an international grievance. For Iran and Saudi Arabia, the fight is never centered around Syrian hatred but rather constructed on a tussle for regional supremacy.

Barnes-Dacey explains that for Iran, the basis of danger was never KSA but rather the US-Israel hallucination to make conflict into an opportunity to weaken Tehran’s position and attempt for a regime change. Initially, Saudi Arabia invested in diplomatic efforts to push down Assad. However, by 2011, seeing the public pressure, Riyadh changed its tactics and started pouring billions in armed support and machinery for opposing Assad. This has resulted in the rise of more extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

In addition, Saudi Arabia and Iran are facing off in not only Syria but also in other parts of the world, including Yemen and Tunisia. Fighters from the Quds force, backed by Iran, have also been present in Syria since 2012. However, the support escalated when Iran started backing Hezbollah in 2013. In contrast with Russia’s inclusion in Syria, Iran’s intercessions from the beginning of the conflict—be it in the form of military, monetary, warning, or intelligence support—were considerably more perceptible.

All these above researches have focused on the emergence of the Arab Spring, the challenges to the Assad regime, the civil war in Syria, the regional dynamics, the rise of insurgent groups in Syria, the role of international actors, and the Saudi Arabia and Iran rivalry and their proxies in Syria. However, they lack an in-depth study of the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian conflict. This study tries to fill that gap.

Research Methodology

The methodology is based on qualitative methods in which secondary sources like academic write-ups, policy, and media reports were used for describing, interpreting, and gaining deep insight into the consequences of the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry on Syria. The process of inquiry of this study is descriptive in nature.

The secondary sources analyzed include books, research articles, policy papers, online sources, and newspapers. The collected data contains works of different authors of Europe, the USA, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the South Asian region to ensure an unbiased result.

Limitation of Study

This study has some limitations in that it lacks the primary source of data and due to the current pandemic situation, the study may not be inclusive of varying perspectives.

History of Post-Arab Spring Conflict in Syria

During the Syrian conflict, a proxy war between the major global powers, Bashar al-Assad has managed to hold on to power. The Assad family has led the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath party since 1971. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, whereas the Assads are Alawites, a sect of the Shia Muslim minority.

At the beginning of 2011, pro-democracy protests—toppling dictators and sparking civil wars—swept across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. In March 2011, the Arab Spring protests began in Syria, sparked by the arrest of young Syrians accused of painting anti-Assad graffiti. Bashar Al-Assad blamed the protestors, calling them foreign conspirators who wanted to disrupt the country’s stability.

He tried to address the unrest in April by releasing political prisoners and ending 48 years of emergency rule, closing the state security court, and allowing peaceful protests. However, soon Assad turned violent. Soldiers began detaining and firing on demonstrators, killing thousands of people.

The Syrian opposition—including the Syrian army defectors trained by Turkey who went on to form Free Syrian Army (FSA)—began to group together and fight back. The FSA formed the first major rebel military group in the war. In July 2012, the US administration granted a non-governmental organization named “Syrian Support Group” a license to fund the FSA (Ruys, 2014).

In January 2012, Bashar al-Assad vowed to stamp out terrorism and foreign-backed rebels with an iron fist. In August 2012, US President Barack Obama warned Bashar al-Assad not to cross the red line of using chemical weapons. Despite the warning, In 2013, Assad used chemical weapons and ramped up rebel support.

A United Nations commission reported three likely chemical weapons attacks by the regime in 2013, the deadliest in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Regime forces dropped sarin gas on the opposition-held territory killing more than 1,000 people. The attack pushed the international community to act. In September 2013, Russia and the USA struck a deal to ensure the removal of Syria’s chemical arsenal (Strobel & Karouny, 2013). The UN announced the program’s completion in June 2014 but later reported that the regime’s chemical attacks had continued.

An Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, was formed at the beginning of 2012. It gained strong support in Syria and attracted jihadists from Iraq to cross into the country to help. In 2013, the Al-Nusra Front changed its name to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. The group strongly opposed Bashar al-Assad’s regime and aimed to form an Islamic emirate in Syria.

From January 2014, it cooperated with ISIS on numerous occasions and captured cities across Iraq and Syria, and announced the establishment of a caliphate with its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Thousands of foreign citizens flocked to join ISIS. The rise of the militant group helped Assad to portray his regime as the lesser of two evils. At this stage, Syria had seemingly reached the point of no return.

The war contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. More than 5.6 million people fled Syria, around half of them entered Turkey, and more than a million entered Lebanon. On the other hand, 6.1 million Syrians are internally displaced (Human Rights Watch, 2020). The aid agencies and neighboring countries are still struggling to cope with the fallout.

International Involvement in the Civil War in Syria

According to the United Nations, around 400,000 people have lost their lives in Syria since the start of the conflict. Smugglers receive large sums of money in return for taking desperate Syrians to Europe’s shores. Thousands of refugees have died on route. After a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up lifeless on a Turkish beach in September 2015, the European leaders started to address the crisis (“Alan Kurdi”, 2016).

The events in Syria soon dragged international powers into the conflict. In early August 2015, Barack Obama authorized airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS militants. Later that month, ISIS militants killed American journalist James Foley. Soon after that, a US-led coalition launched airstrikes in Syria.

Washington, which had been supporting moderate rebels, now backed the Kurds in northern Syria, also known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is mostly made up of Kurdish fighters called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). SDF is seen as the most effective fighting force against ISIS. At the same time, the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey provided support to the Syrian rebels battling Assad.

After four years of war, Assad’s military weakened in 2015. However, the turning point came in September 2015, when Russia entered the conflict. The regime in Damascus was now supported by Moscow, as well as by Iran, giving Assad an upper hand. Moscow began conducting air raids against opponents of the regime, particularly in the northern city of Aleppo. The regime soon managed to recapture parts of Aleppo from rebels. The UN reported that the Syrian forces were murdering civilians by scores in Aleppo. The recapture of Aleppo was Assad’s most significant victory.

When Donald Trump became president in January 2017, he inherited a problem that had tormented his predecessor. Trump has described Assad as “bad” but has condemned the Obama administration for backing rebels (“Donald Trump Doctrine,” 2015). The former president also stated that he was open to collaborating with Moscow to fight against militants.

On January 16, 2017, just four days before his swearing-in ceremony, he opposed intervention against Assad but that changed three months later when on April 4, 2017 dozens of Syrian civilians were killed in a chemical attack. The attack prompted the US to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase (“US Launches Missiles,” 2017).

Syria’s civil conflict is as confusing and violent as it has always been. People are still dying, lives are still being ripped apart, and the United States, the global powers, and, most crucially, the Syrian people are being pushed further into a crisis from which there appears to be no way out.

Syria is obviously an important strategic ally for Tehran, whilst Assad’s administration would not be able to survive without the help of Tehran and Moscow. Iranian actions and efforts, both in the past and currently, indicate that Tehran will not leave Syria anytime soon. Iran knows very well that the significance of enduring and trustworthy cooperation is based on not only rational considerations but also on mutual religious identity and natural joint sympathy.

From a political standpoint, Saudi Arabia hoped for the installation of a “friendly Sunni- dominated administration” that would put Iran on the back burner while allowing it access to Lebanon. The KSA financially and ideologically backed designated groups for this aim. However, the irregularity and un-persuasiveness of Saudi Arabia’s spiritual and political headship were expressed in the religious strategy concerning Syria.

Saudi Arabia desired to encourage jihad against the biased Bashar al-Assad through the deep-seated elements, but through somehow “appropriate” means so that the jihad does not turn against Saudia’s monarchy. All in all, despite massive financial help, KSA failed in maintaining its dominance in Syria. The mere thing it enhanced was Sunni religious fundamentalism.

Objectives and Strategies of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria

Saudi Arabia

Since the 1960s, the monarchs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) have used Wahhabism as a tool in their foreign policy, functioning through international Islamic organizations, Islamic schools (madrasas), private donations, and Saudi consulates. The excessive spending on Islamic education, allowances for overseas students, the charitable work in war zones, the charities for Muslims, the construction of institutes and mosques abroad, and, most importantly, the support of Islamist and Jihadist activists and paramilitaries all over the world, are examples of such foreign policy.

Although many of these initiatives were worthwhile and beneficial, others proved extremely difficult to carry out because they frequently intruded into unstable political reasons and had a negative impact on rectification efforts. KSA is leveraging its huge media presence to strengthen its position as a regional Sunni hegemon.

In contrast to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s media domain is vast, comprising of major Arab newspapers, wireless stations, and television channels such as Al-Hayat, Al Arabiya, and Rotana. The Saudi media has a significant impact on Arab viewers; Saudi Arabia’s government has indoctrinated the region’s media and minds with its vast financial resources. To maintain this power balance against Tehran and the private players, the state deems it necessary to squash critical news on Saudi Arabia (Barnes-Dacey, 2018).

In the Syrian arena, Saudi Arabia has assisted the Syrian rebels and some Islamist militant groups – like the Army of Islam, Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), and Ahrar al-Sham – financially and militarily by providing them with arms. It has also provided limited support to the US-led international alliance against ISIS.

Saudi Arabia goes against Iran’s activities to expand its impact in the Middle East. Riyadh desires to replace Bashar al-Assad with a pro-Saudi, anti-Iranian leader. The Saudis, similar to the other Gulf states, view the Syrian civil war as a basic component in the battle for regional supremacy. In addition, for Saudi Arabia, the Iranian involvement in Syria complicated the situation and indicated a strategic and security risk.

The collapse of the Assad regime and the installation of a Sunni government in Syria will strengthen Riyadh’s position. This will also allow it to influence Lebanon and consolidate more power in Iraq. For the purpose of achieving this, Saudi Arabia has eagerly adopted an extreme position and assisted Salafi jihadist groups to bring down the Assad regime. The rationale for Saudi Arabia’s participation in Syria corresponds to the rise of religious extremism and its expansion throughout Iraq and Syria.

As the fighting progressed and the Islamic State’s halo became brighter, so did Saudi Arabia’s major goal of overthrowing the Syrian government. Riyadh has been concerned about the influx of young Saudis who joined the rebel groups in Syria. It is troubled by the possibility of some of them returning home with battlefield capabilities and a strict Islamic code that they would use to overthrow the Saudi regime (Erlich, 2013).


Iran has been undoubtedly Bashar al-Assad’s most grounded supporter, backing its ally’s military through financial, arms, and intelligence support. Tehran has also provided military experts from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and coordinated warriors from Hezbollah—a Lebanon-based confrontational bunch supported by Tehran—to Syria.

It has also assembled a paramilitary civilian army, comprising soldiers from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to battle for the Assad regime. Iran has set up different bases in Syria, making Israel worry that Iran intends to remain in Syria for the long stretch.

Syria has been Iran’s main partner in the Middle East for a long period. Tehran and Damascus had a joint defense agreement before the beginning of the Syrian civil conflict in 2011. Iran has looked to support the Syrian government in its battle against different rebel groups, a considerable lot of which are supported by Iran’s regional enemies—Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Supporting Assad’s regime certifies a partner against Tehran’s regional foes, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Iran, which also supports Shiite paramilitaries battling ISIS in Iraq, sees the civil war in Syria as a forefront against Sunni confrontational groups and as a way to extend its regional influence. Syria is also essential for Iran to ship armaments to Hezbollah, which is also an anti-Israel organization, in bordering Lebanon. The government of Bashar al-Assad permits Iranian aid to stream to Hezbollah. Tehran’s major objective is to make a land corridor reaching out from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria (Pearson & Sanders, 2019).

Politically, Iran has consistently stated its unwavering support for the Syrian government on all global platforms. Tehran has concentrated its diplomacy on preventing action against Damascus so that Israel and the United States do not attack it (Engel, 2016). When the Syrian leadership crossed the red line—the use of chemical weapons—drawn by the Obama administration and used sarin gas, killing over 1,400 people, Russia persuaded Obama to refrain from striking Syria in exchange for Syria giving up its chemical weapons stockpile (Ward, 2018).

Iran attempted to form an alliance with Syria’s Alawites Shiites, but the coalition quickly devolved into outright Iranian dominance during the Arab Spring uprising. Iran has adopted “soft Shiiteism,” which saw Shiites supplant Sunni populations. Iran also aimed to boost religious tourism in Damascus, particularly in the “Sayeda Zeinab Shrine” area (“The Shiite Geopolitical Reality,” 2016).

Tehran has used a “sectarian mobilization” strategy and assembled a major force based on a sectarian basis to fight in Syria. The ideological component was clearly highlighted by “jihad fatwas,” such as the one given by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Grand Shiite Marja in Iraq, on June 10, 2014, to form a “public mobilization” force to battle ISIS in Iraq. The effects of this mobilization then spread to Syria (“Syrian Crisis and International Interaction,” 2018).

Ultimately, the Shiite narrative portrayed Bashar al-Assad as the victim of his opponents through the Shiite oppressor. Saudi Arabia’s Sunni scholars have appealed to all Sunnis throughout the world to back the Syrian rebels in any manner they can. The Shiite axis (Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah) stays joined, while division wins among the Sunnis, devastating that camp furthermore, weakening its capacity to work. There is no uncertainty that the present circumstance is harming Saudi interests, while Tehran and its partner, Assad, are getting tougher.

Impact of the Rivalry Between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Syrian Conflict

The Saudi Arabian and Iranian contention has racked the Middle East apart, exacerbating the region’s tussle regarding persistent dictatorship, paramilitary violence, and sectarian anxieties. Certainly, the region’s striking religious dissimilarities have permitted the foes to form coalitions with nations that share their description of Islam.

However, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is not outlined by a religious tussle. Relatively, it is a multi-faceted struggle of economic, civil, and religious proportions, as both Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for the control of the politically oppressed region. With the undesirability of conventional war in the 21st century, and in a hunt for regional supremacy, the foes have engaged in proxy warfare, turning the Middle East into their frontline.

This sort of indirect warfare permits the competitors to organize cheap operations in neighboring countries, providing them with prolonged influence through the region. Intensified by the Arab Spring and decades of autocracy and instability, state flaws in Syria offered Iran and Saudi Arabia the opportunity to utilize proxy warfare.

Riven by a Shi’a-Sunni divide, the rival states take advantage of their relevant personalities to appeal to sectarian militia groups, which maximize their muscle and supremacy. Therefore, sectarian relations are used as a tool to assemble Sunnis and Shi’as under the umbrella of Riyadh or Tehran leadership, correspondingly.

Syria, a fragile country, provides protection, shelter, and space to non-state actors. The civil war in Syria created a vacuum for non-state actors to operate and initiate their plans. These non-state actors are backed by prominent power competitors within the region, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Because of the self-interests and the thirst for supremacy of these contenders, the civil war in Syria is still unresolved and has devastating effects on the Syrian economy and people. The Arab Spring revolutions across the Middle East initiated political uncertainty throughout the region. Considering them an opportunity, Iran and Saudi Arabia misused these upheavals to increase their power, particularly in Syria, which further increased their mutual suspicions (Cerioli, 2018).

In conclusion, proxy warfare has eventually encouraged the sectarian split, economic disaster, and mass destruction in the region and has increased the probabilities of the conflict escalating to complete war. The region must now concentrate on broadly rooted ideological tensions, apparently limitless civil combats, and a geopolitical contention with little prospect for the restoration of harmony.


In the Middle East’s geopolitics, KSA and Iran are diametrically opposed. The peace and stability of adjacent nations have been harmed by their inter-state enmity. The Iranian-Saudi conflict is no longer a secret affair, and significant academic work has been done on the origins and causes of the conflict.

The countries’ relationship has turned into a contest over time, with the goal of attaining regional supremacy. Both states have been more active in achieving their objectives, and the competition has taken a militant turn. Tehran and Riyadh avoid direct confrontations but freely sponsor proxy conflicts in their neighbors; Syria, which was already in chaos, became a victim of their competitive politics.

Both sides are set on bringing maximum harm to each other, unaware of the consequences of their actions. As a result, the ordinary man is becoming a victim of the proxy conflicts waged by both governments in order to achieve their main objective of regional dominance. Karim Sadjadpur stated, “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. Millions of people have died in the Middle East, including Syrians, Iraqis, and Yemenis.

The people of Iran and Saudi Arabia are not the individuals who are dying. Both countries have their own political and economic reasons, hidden under the cover of religion, with the end goal of maximizing regional power. As the propaganda and proxy war intensifies, neither side realizes that their actions have negative ramifications for the whole region.

However, a variety of variables influence the Middle East’s security dynamics; the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is particularly strong. Both nations’ leaders are interested in fanning the flames of hatred rather than engaging in constructive talks. The issue becomes even more complex when the leaders seek legitimacy for their rule through an ideology that reflects their underlying hatred.

In a complicated climate, both countries pursue geostrategic objectives while refusing the same to others. Due to a power vacuum, Syria has been under the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Syria has become a prime target for extremism and huge weaponization, with Iran and KSA mostly funding these threats. Several groups have sprung up with ties to either Riyadh or Tehran. However, despite the other causes of the civil war in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia remain the primary agents of instability and anarchy in the state.


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