Abdullah, normally a discreet behind-the-scenes conciliator, has denounced the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with rare royal rage, and his people have joined in with gusto.
Beyond humanitarian concerns, Abdullah sees an opportunity to strike a key strategic blow against Iran, Syria’s key ally and Saudi Arabia’s main rival for power in the Middle East, analysts and government officials said in interviews across this oil-rich kingdom.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran each claim to be the world’s true center of Islam. Both nations are struggling to expand their influence in a region upended by popular revolts that are shifting governments and long-standing alliances.
Assad’s government serves as Tehran’s key pipeline for transferring money and arms to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in Lebanon. Abdullah sees Assad’s potential ouster as a way to choke off that flow and diminish the influence of an increasingly belligerent Iran, officials and analysts said.
“Syria is Iran’s entry into the Arab world,” said one Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Take down Assad and you inflict a strategic blow on Iran.”
The official said Iran is “really on the ropes” because of international sanctions over its nuclear program. He said removing an ally as pivotal as Assad would make Iran “more vulnerable to sanctions.”
Saudi officials have been circumspect about their direct support to Syrian rebels, although government officials privately said Riyadh is buying arms and ammunition, as well as paying salaries for soldiers who defected from the Syrian military to join the rebels.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television and an influential political analyst, said Saudi officials have paid for Kalashnikov rifles and other Russian-made weapons for defected Syrian soldiers who have been trained on Russian arms. Saudi officials have also financed shipments of millions of rounds of ammunition for the rebels, he said, echoing a common assessment among Saudi analysts.
Some analysts here said Abdullah wants to do more for the Syrian opposition, but he is being restrained by Washington. They said U.S. officials have discouraged Riyadh from sending heavier weapons, particularly shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS, to combat Syrian government air attacks. They said U.S. officials are worried about such weapons ending up in the hands of extremist elements among the opposition forces, a concern reported over the weekend in the New York Times.