FPI Bulletin: Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Civil War

April 15, 2016

By FPI Associate Analyst Danielle Ellison

Next week, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will travel to Saudi Arabia, where a major topic of conversation will be the Syrian peace talks that are still ongoing despite a crumbling, partial truce. Both Riyadh and Washington have provided material, financial, and organizational support to Sunni anti-Assad forces. However, Saudi and U.S. policy toward Syria diverge in two significant manners. First, Saudi Arabia has actively supported Islamist components of the opposition, including jihadi-salafi groups that share Riyadh’s antipathy toward the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Second, Riyadh relentlessly demands that Assad be removed, while the Obama administration has gradually begun to compromise this objective. Whether the two sides can move closer on these issues will be a major test of the President’s visit to Riyadh.

Saudi Support to Syrian Rebels

Since uprisings began in 2011, Riyadh has been a major backer of Sunni Arab opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia’s staunch and enduring anti-Assad position stems from the Syrian strongman’s close relationship with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s long-time regional and sectarian rival – and from Assad’s brutalization of the Sunni Arab population. Saudi involvement has often been coordinated with both its Arab and other Sunni allies, and in some respects with the United States.

As early as June 2012, The New York Times spoke with unnamed U.S. and Arab intelligence officials who said that Saudi Arabia, along with Turkey and Qatar, was paying for weapons being funneled through secret channels to Syrian rebel fighters. In February 2013, the Times reported sizable small arms shipments that Saudi Arabia financed and – through third parties – provided to anti-Assad fighters in Syria. Notably, this material support was directed towards nationalist, moderate Islamist, or secular groups, largely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In May 2013 Reuters reported that Riyadh had secured primacy vis-à-vis Syria policy among the Gulf States and other allied Sunni countries. “Saudi Arabia is now formally in charge of the Syria issue,” as a Syrian rebel commander put it. According to unnamed Syrian opposition sources, Prince Salman bin Sultan and his brother Prince Bandar direct all private and state support for the Syrian rebels.

As the war continued, Saudi Arabia provided increasingly powerful weapons, such as U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles, to Syrian opposition forces. According to Syrian government and NGO sources, Saudi support enabled rebels to hold back Assad’s forces in several areas during 2015. Often, the unnamed sources who provide journalists with information about shipments of Saudi weapons have also indicated that Riyadh frequently cooperated with the CIA to facilitate the shipments. Riyadh also has participated openly but intermittently in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria, and the kingdom has been involved in training and equipping Syrian opposition militias at camps in Jordan.

A Shift to Islamists

Although Saudi support for moderate Syrian militias that the United States also backs has persisted, Riyadh has increasingly engaged with Islamist groups whose jihadi-salafi ideology may be characterized as extremist, although these groups are adversaries of the Islamic State. Sometimes described as “nationalist,” these groups claim that they reject the ISIS commitment to a global jihad, focusing instead on the establishment of a theocratic state in Syria alone. Critically for Riyadh, these groups have not challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi kingdom.

By December 2013 reports emerged that Saudi Arabia was backing – and possibly even coordinating and funding – a coalition of militias in Syria called Jaysh al-Islam (Islamic Front), consisting of Salafi jihadist groups. Al-Monitor explained, “While none of the seven groups comprising the Islamic Front are designated by the United States as terrorist organizations…the front’s objective is to impose Islamic law in Syria.” Reuters reported from rebel and diplomatic sources that “it was Saudi Arabia which nudged rebel brigades operating in and around Damascus to announce this week that they have united under a single command,” and that Saudi Arabia “furnishes arms and other supplies.” Although Jaysh al-Islam was formed specifically to be an Islamist command that could effectively combat ISIS and al-Qaeda, its efforts have sometimes undermined the FSA on the battlefield.

In March 2015 a new rebel front called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) launched significant offensives against Assad forces. Several Arab media sources indicate that Jaish al-Fatah was supported by Saudi Arabia as well as Turkey and Qatar. According to The Independent, Saudi Arabia provided weapons and money to militias in Jaish al-Fatah, while Turkey facilitated transportation of the material into Syria. Initial reports about Jaish al-Fatah indicated that the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra plays a prominent role in the alliance. This suggested that Riyadh may have set aside its concerns about cooperating in Syria with the same extremists who threaten the kingdom from within. Although some reports indicate that Jabha al-Nusra broke with Jaish al-Fatah in October 2015, there is no clear evidence of the break.

One of the most important members of both the Islamic Front and the Army of Conquest has been the jihadi-salafi group Ahrar al-Sham. As Reuters explains, “Despite its origins as an ally of al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham plays down any commitment to global jihad and emphasizes its national credentials as a Syrian movement that respects the country’s borders.” The U.S. has resisted working with Ahrar al-Sham despite its size and prominence due to concerns over the group’s base in militant Islam, previous loyalty of some members to al-Qaeda, and potentially ongoing connections with Jabhat al-Nusra. In April 2016 The Wall Street Journal reported that Ahrar al-Sham was fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra near Aleppo against Assad’s army. For the Saudis, however, the group’s nationalist orientation apparently provides sufficient reassurance.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s support for certain jihadi-salafi groups in Syria aligns with its overarching strategic interests. First, Saudi Arabia’s ultimate regional concern is the Assad/Iran/Russia axis. Allying with those who oppose this axis is a powerful imperative even if such allies are imperfect. Secondly, Saudi Arabia itself espouses state-sponsored Wahhabi (Salafi) Islam, and it needs to work with other salafists to win the Islamist ideology war against the most extreme and dangerous groups – ISIS and al-Qaeda. As Cole Bunzel of Princeton explains, Saudi Arabia needs to deter jihadists from embracing ideas that “do not find a mainstream Wahhabi precedent” and thus pose both a religious and a political threat to the Saudi kingdom.

Riyadh’s Role in Facilitating the Geneva Peace Talks

In 2016, it may be the political dimensions of the Saudi relationship with the Syrian opposition that are most relevant in light of the prominent role Riyadh has played in facilitating rebel participation in the Geneva peace talks.

The consistent Saudi position on peace talks has been that Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of any political solution to the conflict. In January, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted, “Bashar al-Assad will leave – I have no doubt about it. He will either leave by a political process or he will be removed by force.” When the Geneva talks resumed in March, al-Jubeir reasserted that Assad must leave “at the beginning of the process, not at the end of the process.”

Prior to the third and current round of peace talks, Saudi Arabia held a conference in December 2015 at which more than 100 Syrian opposition leaders formed the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) to represent the opposition in talks with the Assad regime. As The New York Times reported, “While previous efforts to unify the opposition failed or remained limited, the Riyadh meeting brought together many parties with different agendas, some of whom regarded one another as enemies.” Confusingly, Ahrar al-Sham walked out at the end of the talks, yet its representative still signed a consensus statement calling for a “pluralistic” state with “free and fair elections.” While the leader of the HNC, former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, has a positive relationship with the United States, chief negotiator Mohammed Alloush belongs to the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam (Islamic Front).

Can Washington and Riyadh Cooperate?

While Riyadh and Washington are nominal partners in the effort to resolve the Syrian civil war, there is divergence between the allies on the tolerance for Islamists in Syria and the necessity of removing Assad. When President Obama and Secretary Carter visit Riyadh, they should press Saudi Arabia to refrain from supporting Syrian opposition groups linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, as the al-Qaeda group poses a serious long-term threat to both countries and the entire region. Meanwhile, the United States should learn from Saudi resolve to oust Assad, a step that remains an essential requirement for lasting peace in Syria.

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