The Saudis on the other hand are learning an important lesson right now: They can’t win a war with Iran, either against the proxies or in a direct conflict. Their direct intervention in Yemen is demonstrating the limits of their military capabilities – there is a reason why they haven’t gone across the border with their own Army. They can certainly act as a spoiler and ensure Iran is fighting terrorists and insurgents pretty much forever and they might be able to defend the integrity of the Kingdom itself (for certain if the US entered into the fight on their side), but the damage they would suffer from missile strikes and fifth columnists against their hideously vulnerable infrastructure would destroy the already frayed social compact with their population. The would likely disintegrate in the ensuing chaos shortly after.
Bottom line: I think the Iranians and Saudi rhetoric grows heated and antagonistic but I believe there are factors in place which will prevent them from going head to head in direct fashion.
The Iranians have mileage to gain by playing the aggrieved but responsible party and the Saudis will crack down within their own borders and hope oil prices rebound so they can go back to fixing things the Saudi way – by throwing tons of money at it. I do think it means bad things for Syria. The best case scenario here was ISIS defeated and a Dayton Peace Accord like agreement ending the war but that would take all parties agreeing and that is now out the window – the peace talks may continue but they won’t go anywhere. This sequence of events ensures at least another 2-3 years of fighting in Syria.
But there is always the wild card. A few months back I wrote an article that the Russians weren’t going to get involved in Syria more than air support and propping up their Assad proxy; I think I called that one right. But I’m not sure all the players in this particular drama are as coldly pragmatic as the Russians and for them, the stakes are much higher. Putin can withdraw – Saudi Arabia and Iran cannot and their survival is at stake.
Desperation and passion lead to flawed decision making no matter the ultimate intent and while neither side may be interested in an actual war, in the end, war may be interested in them.
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