Friday, December 18, 2015

Will the Saudi Arabia Let the West Defeat ISIS?

As noted in a number of previous posts, one of America's most duplicitous "allies" in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia and the Saudi royal family.  Yes, the Saudi royals want to retain their wealth and very nice life style, yet Saudi Arabia remains the number one financier of Islamic extremism in the world. And little is being done to reign in the money flow supporting the export of Islamic extremism despite Saudi lip service to the contrary.  Indeed, like the GOP in this country, the Saudi monarchy has used appeals to fundamentalist extremist to help hold on to their power.  A piece in The Daily Beast raises the timely question of whether or not the Saudis are actually on the side of the West in seeking to defeat ISIS.  Here are article highlights:

Saudi Arabia has put on quite a show. On Dec. 9 and 10, the Gulf monarchy held a major conference to assemble the Syrian rebels into a cohesive front—a welcome reprieve from the chaos in Syria and the fragmentation of the opposition. On Dec. 15, Saudi Arabia announced a new “Islamic military alliance” of 34 countries to “coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism.” These two developments—unifying the Syrian rebels and leading the Muslim world in the fight against terrorism—were certainly meant to reaffirm Saudi Arabia’s role as a reliable U.S. ally in Syria and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, both of these initiatives fell apart before they were even underway. Not only did the Saudis exclude the Kurds—the most effective ground force fighting ISIS—from the Syrian opposition conference, they also included radical elements like Ahrar al-Sham, an ally of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. 

So why the dog and pony show? Saudi Arabia is hoping to draw attention away from the true objectives of it and its partners, Qatar and Turkey, and the support they give to the Salafist groups in Syria that contribute to the continued instability in the country.

Embroiled in a proxy war with Russia and Iran—both of whom support Assad—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have supported and armed the more radical elements of the opposition.

While some, like Ahrar al-Sham, have made robust public relations efforts to present themselves as moderates, these groups espouse radical ideologies and carry out atrocities that make it so no minority group in Syria could, or should, trust them. Moreover, they continue to expand Syria’s ungoverned space, forming a stronghold from which they can arm and train themselves and carry out attacks both inside and outside of Syria. Russia and Iran already fear this outcome; the United States, the West, and other countries in the Middle East should as well.

Their goals are much narrower than creating a viable state. Instead, their intervention in Syria is part-and-parcel of the larger conflict with Iran. The evident objective is simply to create enough instability that the country is no longer an asset to Tehran but is, rather, a liability. In this regard, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already succeeding.

Turkey, on the other hand, has an entirely different interest in prolonging the Syrian Civil War. Rather than a threat from Iran, Turkey is concerned over the potential creation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria—much like the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to which Turkey has reluctantly grown accustomed.

Though their objectives are different, the Gulf policies and the Turkish policy have one thing in common—even if they achieved their end goals, a stop to the fighting is not part of their vision for Syria. As long as the Gulf States continue their conflict with Iran and the Turks try to hold off an inevitable Kurdish autonomous region—with neither employing a long-term strategy—there will be no foreseeable end to the Syrian conflict.

Where is the United States in this? What should the United States do?  Russia and Iran will never give up Assad in the face of unabated external support for Syria’s Salafist opposition groups. Expecting them to do so while the United States turns a blind eye to its allies—something Moscow and Tehran see as tacit approval—is naive.

Washington must make public demands that its allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, stop arming these radical groups. John Kerry and other U.S. officials may well be quietly urging Ankara and Gulf partners to limit their aid to what the United States deems “moderate” opposition groups; however, as these countries refuse to cooperate, Washington must, at the very least, make these calls louder.

When these countries continue to act against long-term U.S. interests—that is, stability in Syria—Washington should restrict, rather than facilitate, new arms sales and investment opportunities for them. This will of course create complications, as the United States has used Turkey’s Incirlik airbase since June and has coordinated with both Turkey and Saudi Arabia to arm and train rebels against ISIS. But if Washington remains quiet on these countries’ divisive behavior, they will be emboldened to continue and create further instability.

If, however, both sides can be persuaded—and if necessary, pressured—to stop supporting those who prolong the war, perhaps some form of unity can be reached. It will be a tense unity, certainly, but it will be a step in the right direction.

If the United States wants to mediate effectively between the two sides, it must find a more balanced approach. If it can’t keep its allies—especially Saudi Arabia—in check, any efforts to end the war will be doomed from the start.

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