Our forecast for the Middle East in 2016 is based in part on the United States seeking to destroy the Islamic State and recreate stable nation states in Iraq and Syria while not engaging in extensive ground warfare. There are four powers in the region capable of shaping the outcome of this conflict: Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the weakest of the four. Weakness, however, does not mean the Saudis are incapable of action. It is the opposite: Weakness makes Saudi Arabia more unpredictable and dangerous. The Saudis are attempting to deal with both internal strains and external attacks and our model says their attempts to do so will have deleterious ramifications in 2016.
The first confirmation of this did not take long to develop in the new year. Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry issued a statement on Jan. 2 that 47 “criminals” were executed across the kingdom. The statement placed collective guilt for three major crimes on all of the 47: for embracing “takfiri,” (apostate) beliefs, for involvement in attacks on security and military targets in Saudi Arabia that killed security forces and Saudi citizens, and for plans to harm the kingdom’s economy and political standing through such varied acts as armed bank robberies and storming the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah.
This mass execution is important for three key reasons. First, it is a reminder that the domestic threats Saudi Arabia faces are as dangerous to the kingdom as external ones. Second, it shows that Saudi Arabia intends not to back down from conflict with Iran and more broadly with the region’s Shiites, but to exacerbate it. Lastly, it will worsen conflict on the ground in Syria and Iraq and perhaps even in the kingdom or in Iran.
Much is being made of the fact that among the 47 executed is Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Al-Nimr was an influential Saudi national and Shiite figure in the kingdom. He was arrested back in July 2012 after playing a large role in anti-regime protests in the oil producing Eastern Province. We will address the importance of al-Nimr being included in a moment, but the first thing to note is that al-Nimr was executed with 46 others. This demonstrates two things. First, it betrays the fact that one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest threats comes from its own sectarian milieu. The fact that so many of those executed were jihadists shows that Saudi Arabia cannot escape the reality that they face a dire domestic threat. Second, it illuminates Saudi strategy. Saudi Arabia is deliberately equating Shiites with jihadists, terrorists and criminals. In doing this, Riyadh is deliberately provoking Iran and Shiites in the region at large.
Al-Nimr had been under arrest for over three years and had been sentenced to death in October 2014, so Riyadh chose the time, place and circumstance of this mass execution with careful intention. Saudi Arabia then is sending a clear message to both its enemies and its allies in the region.
The message to Iran is that there will be no negotiations in Syria over the fate of Bashar al-Assad – Saudi Arabia has taken note of recent successes for Assad forces in Syria and this is a crafty theatrical gesture for Tehran’s benefit. The message to the region is that the kingdom is the main defensive bulwark against the advance of forces hostile to Sunni Arabs. Saudi Arabia is demonstrating its resolve that it will continue to defend its allies from jihadists and Shiites alike. The message to the world is that, from Riyadh’s perspective, Iran’s role in the region contributes to its instability as much as the Islamic State. For the kingdom, the fight against IS is also a fight against Iran.
Saudi Arabia is attempting to escalating the situation. The kingdom is making clear that it does not intend to back down from any of the challenges facing it. Already, there are protests building in Qatif in the Eastern Province. Protests at the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, Iran resulted in the consulate being set on fire. Condemnations from the Iraqi Prime Minister and the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister are just two in a chorus of criticisms of Riyadh’s actions.
But Saudi Arabia executed these 47 prisoners knowing this would all come to pass. Saudi Arabia is weaker in terms of raw military strength when compared to Iran or Turkey. For Riyadh to continue going toe to toe with these regional forces, it must have the backing of Sunni Arabs in the region. And this is the point where al-Nimr’s inclusion is so notable. Aggravating sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region is a dangerous way to accomplish that goal, but Saudi Arabia has a limited number of options, and Riyadh determined that the potential gains from the fall-out from the executions was worth the predictable unrest that would follow.
Assuming the unrest generated by this mass execution passes, the ramifications will play out in both Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia is not going to back down from its anti-Assad stance, nor is it going to come to an understanding with Iran. Rather, Saudi Arabia will continue to support its allies and proxies both in Syria and Iraq. We risk sounding like a broken record when we say that no outside negotiations or truces in Syria will hold as long as these dynamics remain, but that makes it no less true. That Saudi Arabia also ended a ceasefire with pro-Iranian Houthi rebels in Yemen reminds us that sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is not limited to the Syrian and Iraqi theaters.
There is one additional factor to this execution that we believe is notable. On Dec. 25, Zahran Alloush, an anti-Assad fighter in Syria, was reportedly killed by an airstrike with four senior officers. Assad’s state-run news agency SANA claimed credit for the attack. Alloush was a commander in Jaysh al-Islam, a coalition of various Islamist and Salafist units united in their fight against Assad. Jaysh al-Islam is one of Saudi Arabia’s key proxies in Syria and Alloush had a close personal relationship with the country. Indeed, he is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar. While we cannot link Alloush’s assassination with today’s mass execution, the timing is notable and we are skeptical of the coincidences.
The larger point to make from Alloush’s death just a week ago is that al-Nimr’s execution is not some kind of break-point. The Middle East is in a state of turmoil because conflict is occurring there everyday on multiple axes – ethnic, tribal, sectarian and more. The mass execution and the fall-out is a reminder that battles in Syria and Iraq are also battles between Sunnis and Shiites – and that Saudi Arabia has an interest in escalating that conflict as it seeks to find its footing after a year of missteps and defeats.