Argument

Syria Is Now Saudi Arabia's Problem

The battle for a town on the Lebanese border marks the kingdom's first attempt to lead Syria's fractured opposition.

Hezbollah can finally claim a victory in Syria. The town of Qusayr, adjacent to the Lebanese border, has fallen to the Lebanese militia after nearly a month of fierce battles with Syrian rebels. Dozens of Hezbollah's fighters have been killed, despite air cover and ground support from Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Qusayr battle has been constantly, and wrongly, described as a turning point in the Syrian war. Why has this small town of some 30,000 residents become "strategic," as it is constantly described in the press, all of a sudden? The town had previously been run by its Sunni residents for more than a year, with little mention of its strategic benefits.

Hezbollah's open military intervention in Syria partly explains the publicity the Qusayr battle has received. As a result, the "Party of God" has lost much of its political and ideological capital in the region -- a capital the militia had painstakingly acquired from its three-decade career of "resisting" Israel.

But beyond the supposed military benefits of Qusayr, the battle for the town carried important consequences for the balance of power within the Syrian opposition. Qusayr is arguably the first battle in Syria to be completely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, marking the kingdom's first foray outside its sphere of influence along the Jordanian border. Riyadh has now taken over Qatar's role as the rebels' primary patron: In one sense, the Saudis can also claim a victory in Qusayr, as they have successfully put various rebel forces under the command of their ally in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idriss.

Although the Syrian rebels received military aid from various countries and private donors, Qatar initially emerged as the main sponsor of the opposition. Its alliance with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood helped it control the political opposition and the armed rebels' most prominent factions, including Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo.

But under increased pressure from the Untied States, Qatar has recently handed over the "Syrian dossier" to Saudi Arabia. Members of the Syrian opposition coalition made a two-day visit last month to Riyadh for the first time to coordinate with the Saudis. The opposition's delegates were asked by Riyadh to restructure the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the opposition, which they bitterly did three weeks later.

In response, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its aid. Riyadh provided the rebels with 35 tons of weapons, though the kingdom failed to provide them with the better-quality arms the FSA's chief of staff had requested. Significantly, Liwa al-Tawhid joined the battles in Qusayr -- a significant step, because the militia had always worked closely, and almost exclusively, with the Qataris and the Brotherhood. According to Gulf sources close to the Syrian opposition, Liwa al-Tawhid's commander, Abdulqader al-Saleh, has recently met with representatives of Saudi intelligence to coordinate military activities. Rebel fighters from Aleppo's Military Council and from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor also joined the battles.

The kingdom's clients have been making progress on the political level as well: Idriss has recently acquired wide-ranging powers within the Syrian National Coalition. Sources familiar with the opposition's talks in Istanbul last month told me the general was given a veto over the 14 provincial representatives from Syria's provinces, in addition to the 15 seats given to the Free Syrian Army. These combined 29 seats -- added to the eight seats given to the opposition figure Michel Kilo and 13 to the Democratic List, an alliance essentially backed by Riyadh -- significantly expanded Saudi Arabia's influence on the coalition and undermined the previous dominance of the Brotherhood.

The opposition's talks in Istanbul lasted for more than a week, and the coalition's Brotherhood-dominated General Assembly first refused to accept the expansion plan, despite ferocious pressure from Western ambassadors and representatives from the Gulf states. But according to Gulf sources, the coalition members were given an ultimatum a day before they finally accepted the expansion plan -- either accept it or Idriss would announce the creation of an FSA political wing that would supersede the coalition altogether. The General Assembly members backed down and accepted an even worse deal than what had initially been proposed.

To be sure, the Saudis could not have bolstered their leverage within the opposition without help from countries like the United States and Jordan. Riyadh works closely with almost all the players in the Syrian conflict, barring Qatar and Turkey. Contrary to popular belief, the kingdom supports moderate groups within the Syrian rebels to counter the influence of the Brotherhood and its Qatari patrons. As a result, Saudi Arabia's increased influence may help temper some of the rising fears of extremist trends within the armed opposition. Of course, the kingdom also supports Salafi-leaning groups to counter jihadi groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington has recently stepped up financial monitoring efforts to ensure that any aid to the Syrian rebels goes through Idriss, according to informed sources from the Gulf. These measures will of course be difficult to enforce, owing to the activities of private donors with established channels with the Syrian rebels -- and also due to the poorly regulated financial institutions of some countries, such as Kuwait. But they nevertheless mark an attempt to empower Idriss, and consequently the Saudis.

Nonetheless, Qatar can still pull a few strings within the opposition. A Syrian activist told me that Turkey-based representatives from Qatar had declined to meet a rebel group from Idlib a week before the opposition's talks in Istanbul. But after the expansion of the coalition, the representatives called the group back and apparently provided it with the ammunition it needed. Doha's influence may have decreased, but it can still use its established channels to maintain leverage over armed groups.

As it consolidates its takeover of the opposition, another factor that favors the Saudis is its tentative rapprochement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met last month with the Brotherhood's deputy leader, Mohammed Tayfour, for the first time. The Brotherhood had requested the meeting to mend its relations with the kingdom, which had shunned the group and stated privately on more than one occasion that it rejects the Brotherhood's dominance of Syria. The meeting was not an indication that the kingdom has opened it heart to the Brotherhood, as some have argued, but was meant to contain the group as Riyadh takes over from Qatar.

Still, the Saudis currently have little leeway to exercise their newfound influence. Washington and Moscow are still intent on organizing a "Geneva 2" conference, intended to bring together representatives from the Syrian regime and the opposition to reach a negotiated settlement. The preparations for Geneva 2 have meant that military options, such as increased aid for the rebels, are on pause until the talks take place or fail.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's victory in Qusayr was inevitable, but not the end of the story. Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the battles in this formerly obscure town marks a new beginning of warfare in Syria -- one many hope will add a sense of unity to rebel ranks and empower moderate opposition forces.

FREDERIC LAFARGUE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

China's New Backyard

Does Washington realize how deeply Beijing has planted a flag in Latin America?

For the past decade, Washington has looked with discomfort at China's growing interest in Latin America. But while Beijing's diplomats bulked up on their Spanish and Portuguese, most U.S. policymakers slept soundly, confident that the United States still held a dominant position in the minds of its southern neighbors. In April 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on China's influence in the hemisphere and concluded that the U.S. position in the Western Hemisphere was much stronger than China's and, moreover, that Beijing's economic engagement in the region did not present a security threat. But that was 2005.

In late May of this year, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went to Latin America for a three-day, three-country tour, Beijing was hot on his heels. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Trinidad and Tobago just days after Biden left: Whereas Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, characterized her discussions with Biden as "at times brutal," Xi's stop in Trinidad and Tobago included the unveiling of a children's hospital funded with $150 million from the Chinese government, discussion of energy projects, and meetings with seven Caribbean heads of state. Xi's itinerary took him to Costa Rica and Mexico on June 4 to 6, but his shadow followed Biden all the way to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, Biden referred to a new "strategic partnership" between the United States and Brazil, yet his words' impact was undercut by the strategic partnership that Brazil has had with China since 1993 and the much-publicized fact that China overtook the United States as Brazil's largest trading partner in 2009 (trade between China and Brazil exceeded $75 billion in 2012). It's not an accident that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff made a state visit to China in April 2011, prior to paying one to the United States.

Make no mistake: China is now a presence in the region. Xi's trip to Trinidad and Tobago is only the second visit by a Chinese president to the Caribbean -- his predecessor, Hu Jintao, visited communist Cuba in November 2008 -- but China and the Caribbean's economic and political ties have been growing rapidly. On this trip, Xi promised more than $3 billion in loans to 10 Caribbean countries and Costa Rica. Xi's choice of three destinations near the United States, followed by a "shirt-sleeves" summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on June 7 and 8 at the Sunnylands resort in California, sends a subtle message that the new Chinese leadership seeks to engage the United States globally as an equal -- without the deference shown in the past to the United States in countries close to its borders.

Ironically, it's the Latin American country closest to the United States where Xi might be able to make up the most ground. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's engagement with the Chinese president, both at the April summit in Boao, China, and this week in Mexico City, allow him to differentiate himself from his pro-U.S. predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Similarly, Mexico's role in forming the Pacific Alliance, a new subregional organization built around a group of four pro-market, pro-trade countries (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) allows Mexico to reassert a leadership role in the Americas, relatively independent of the United States.

The challenges arising from China's global engagement should not, however, be confused with the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that characterized the Cold War, in which each side actively promoted different, competing concepts for a global order. China does not seek to impose a new ideology on the world, yet the mercantilist way in which it promotes its economic development, combined with its lack of commitment to international norms that it didn't create, makes it more difficult for the United States to conduct business and pursue policy goals in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Consider China's ties with the eight countries that make up the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Since 2007, China has loaned $50 billion to Ecuador and Venezuela, the alliance's two largest countries, giving them the financial wherewithal to continue sustaining anti-U.S. policies at home and to advance their cause in the region -- from funding oil alliance Petrocaribe, to setting up teleSUR and Banco del Sur, to sending suitcases of cash to politicians in Argentina. And the willingness of Chinese companies to invest in Venezuela and Ecuador has made it easier for those countries' regimes to nationalize industries and displace undesired Western corporations. China's indifference to those countries' political systems has cleared the way for their devolution to less democratic practices, from the legal actions taken against the leadership of El Universo and other Ecuadorean media, to forcing RCTV off the air in Venezuela and persecuting Venezuelan opponents from Manuel Rosales (now in exile) to former armed forces head Raúl Baduel (now incarcerated). China's no-strings-attached investments enable the regimes to thumb their noses at Western institutions and prevailing international norms regarding respect for contracts, freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights.

The challenge to Washington from China's presence in the region also extends beyond economics and policy objectives. The U.S. Defense Department's critical posture regarding Chinese cyberattacks is a reminder that hostilities between the United States and China, though highly improbable and undesirable, are not unthinkable. In such a conflict, China-operated ports, airports, telecommunications infrastructure, and other parts of the Chinese commercial presence in Latin America would represent potential assets in a global asymmetric warfare campaign against the United States.

It is ironic that, after his meetings in Mexico, Xi will meet with Obama in California. But for the difficulty in getting Xi's entourage of Chinese luxury cars across the border, he could almost have driven the last leg of the journey. But perhaps that is the point: It has taken a leader coming from the other side of the world to remind the U.S. leadership that Latin America is connected to the United States, in physical, economic, and human terms. Thus, what happens in the region is of profound importance for the United States and, hopefully, will be at least one of the topics of conversation between President Xi and President Obama after they shake hands at Sunnylands.

ELIZABETH RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images