Significant changes in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy over the past six months have been precipitated by the Gulf giant’s troubled relations with two very different countries: the United States and Qatar. Riyadh’s attempts to resolve a geopolitical crisis with its superpower ally, and an ideological one with its regional competitor, have already yielded a series of interesting developments in Mideast geopolitics, the most dramatic being in the changed nature of the Syrian rebellion.
The first change was brought on by the perception that the United States is interested in more than just halting Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb through diplomacy. The Obama Administration’s torpid response to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, combined with its comparatively energetic pursuit of a deal with the mullahs at almost any cost, has convinced Riyadh that Washington may in fact be implementing a quiet, unacknowledged policy of détente, if not outright rapprochement, with the Islamic Republic. As Abdullah al-Askar, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s advisory parliament, told Reuters last October: “I am afraid in case there is something hidden. If America and Iran reach an understanding it may be at the cost of the Arab world and the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.” He spoke in what he insisted was a personal capacity, but was clearly channeling widespread anxiety in King Abdullah’s court.
Elsewhere, this interoperation has been helped by the President himself, as when he told the New Yorker’s David Remnick, in an interview published in early January: “If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.” The Saudis fear that American naiveté, as articulated in this thought experiment, would allow Iran’s sought-after hegemony in the Levant to become a reality tolerated by Washington, especially since the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force and Hezbollah are now fighting al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists—elements which U.S. intelligence deems the preeminent threat to American national security.
So lately, Saudis have committed to stamping out that threat themselves. The kingdom recently removed Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington, from his post as intelligence chief for Saudi Arabia’s anti-Assad policy, which he had held since 2011. Prince Bandar had alienated and angered Washington with his consistent denunciations of U.S. policy on Syria and by what was seen to be his promiscuous support for rebels on the ground, including Salafists. He also happened to be replaced by someone whom the Obama Administration already liked and respected. This is Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a counterterrorism hawk, who survived a suicide attack in 2009 by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and has been a staunch opponent of jihadism in the Middle East since even before 9/11.
It was no accident that Prince Mohammed’s appointment coincided with Riyadh’s blacklisting of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the even more extremist Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) as terrorist organizations. And it probably isn’t only for a regard for state security that the Saudi Interior Ministry just announced the arrest of a 62-member “al-Qaeda cell” consisting of Syria-based members, which was seeking to assassinate government officials. Postings on social media networks, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki, in a televised press conference on May 6, “led security forces after months of hard work to pinpoint suspicious activities that unveiled a terrorist organization through which the elements of al-Qaeda in Yemen were communicating with their counterpart elements in Syria in coordination with a number of misguided [people] at home in various provinces of the kingdom.” Yet Syrian jihadists weren’t the only ones blacklisted by the kingdom in March: the Muslim Brotherhood was, too.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s abiding distrust of the Brotherhood has led not only to its support for last year’s coup d’état in Egypt, and its fulsome political, financial and military backing of the junta led by general-turned-presidential candidate Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, but also to several public confrontations with its main Gulf rival, Qatar, a prominent sponsor of the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates all withdrew their Ambassadors from Doha a month ago in protest of what they claimed was Qatar’s meddling in each country’s domestic politics. The Saudis have insisted that Qatar refrain from pursuing policies deemed threatening to regional security, primarily by hosting and supporting Islamists from other countries and by using a network of Islamic groups to advance its own political agenda in the Gulf. Qatar’s patronage of various media outlets that host Gulf-bashing Islamists, including but not limited to the Doha-headquartered Al Jazeera, was another item on the Saudi “no” list.
This neighborhood feud has already had a discernible effect on the Syrian insurgency. The anti-Assad rebel group Harakat Hazm is wholly underwritten by Riyadh and is currently expanding its operations in several contested areas in the country. This faction was recorded to be in possession of sophisticated, American-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have been sent into northern and southern Syria in small shipments in the past month, coordinated jointly by the United States and Saudi Arabia. As the Wall Street Journal confirmed in a report published on April 18, this arming campaign was conceived as a “pilot” program to determine whether a truly coherent moderate opposition can be trusted with heavier firepower.
The program is also, quite clearly, Prince Mohammed’s debut performance as the ostensibly more responsible overseer of the rebel cause. In recent days, other moderate rebel groups have turned up toting the TOWs, in the Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman and elsewhere. As ever, however, the U.S. priority in arming the opposition is not regime change—still very much a Saudi objective—but rather containing extremism. The Saudis believe that if this initiative is successful, surface-to-air missiles may next get the green light from Washington in spite of repeated statements from White House officials suggesting the contrary.
Nevertheless, they are following the Obama Administration’s playbook, at least in the short term. According to rebel commanders in Idlib, another Saudi-backed proxy, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), from which Harakat Hazm split, is planning to launch an offensive against ISIS in the eastern province of Raqqa, the only provincial capital completely out of the regime’s control. The SRF, led by Jamal Ma’arouf, had taken lead roles recent months in eliminating ISIS strongholds in Idlib. Simultaneously, other Free Syrian Army groups are now being prevailed upon by Riyadh to consolidate their atomized forces, provided that they foreswear any ongoing affiliation with the Brotherhood. One telling Saudi injunction for receiving new, U.S.-blessed lethal aid is that rebel groups must nix Brotherhood-evocative nomenclature, such as using the word “shield” in names of their brigades or battalions.
Lost in the debate about the rise of Islamist extremism within the opposition is the fact that Syria’s rebellion has always been defined by battlefield expediency as much as it has been by ideology, if not more so. This is why many Brotherhood-aligned groups, which do not necessarily share in the movement’s political platform, have nevertheless been co-opted by it. The Brotherhood has been all too willing to win friends and influence people with endless supplies of weapons and cash. For the Saudis, such alliances of convenience mean that the recipients of such largesse can be co-opted right back and recombined under more nationalist and moderate banners. This appears to be one of the chief motives behind the anti-tank missile “pilot” program.
Qatar, however, will not submit so easily to its eclipse by its larger and more geopolitically proficient neighbor. Since June of last year, when Riyadh officially assumed the role of chief sponsor of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, Doha has worked more discreetly to build influence among Syrian rebels—and rival Saudi influence. Last month, days before Doha agreed to a set of demands made by its Gulf neighbors to reduce its support for Islamists, 128 Syrian Islamists formed the largest clerical council yet, the Syrian Islamic Council. The council is made of three main clerical groups dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and backed by Qatar. The council has a large component that is known to be critical of the Saudis.
Syrian Islamists, especially the Brotherhood, are also fearful that Riyadh is about to tighten the noose even further around their necks. According to a source close to the Brotherhood leadership, the group believes that some kind of major crackdown is imminent and has advised its members to prepare for it, whereas previously, even in the midst of the ambassadorial recall affair, the Syrian Brotherhood claimed that it felt relatively secure and immunized from Saudi aggression. After the discussion, which took place during the Brotherhood’s general meeting in March, the organization began restructuring the armed factions loyal to it.
Some pro-Saudi tendencies in Syria now look irreversible. Last May, a Riyadh-backed restructuring plan saw the Brotherhood’s stake in Syrian National Coalition severely diminished, after a bloc headed by Christian dissident Michel Kilo was incorporated into the ranks. It is Kilo, a man of a leftist-Marxist background, who is now commonly referred to as the “mover and shaker” within the coalition, instead of the usual Brotherhood figures. At the Syrian political level, it seems, the Saudis are acting much more discretely against their Islamist foe, likely to preserve the appearance of unity. The Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Farouq Tayfour, for instance, travelled with Jarba during the members’ trip to Riyadh, which preceded their more publicized debut this week in Washington, where they met with President Obama.
Nevertheless, the regulation of the aid distribution through the opposition’s bodies has also been a blow to the Islamists and their underwriters in Qatar, whose previous control of the humanitarian supplies and military bureaus helped them to curry favor with the rebels. The armed Syrian opposition now seems mostly underwriting by the Saudis. In February, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the Free Syrian Army was taken over by the so-called “Council of Thirty” — a military bloc led by Abdullah Bashir, the commander of the Saudi-controlled Southern Front, and by Maarouf of the SRF. The original SMC commander, General Salim Idris, has been sidelined. The Council of Thirty is loyal to Syrian National Coalition chairman Ahmad Jarba, who is loyal to Riyadh.
Jarba’s main objective lately has been to remove daylight between the political and military arms of the opposition. According to a high-ranking member of the Coalition, there are now four preconditions for joining the SMC’s new Joint Chiefs of Staff. The first is that one must be a defector from the Syrian military and therefore a professional soldier rather than a civilian who took up arms only when the conflict started. The second is that one must actually fight inside Syria and not remotely guide the insurgency from a headquarters in southern Turkey. The third is that one must renounce any institutional political or religious affiliation, a clear reference to the Brotherhood. And the fourth condition is that one must have a clear stance on extremism. Here again, Saudi deference to U.S. counterterrorism policy is in evidence.
Moreover, factions affiliated with the Islamic Front—a large consortium of Islamist or Salafist groups variously funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and until recently the most well-organized and formidable rebel formation in Syria—are at odds with each other. The most influential constituent brigade, Jaish al-Islam, is seen as trying to dictate its own terms to the others without providing any real benefits in exchange. The hardline Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham, which includes fighters linked to al-Qaeda yet was thought to be more amenable to mainstream Islamists by its incorporation into the Islamic Front, has tilted strongly toward Jabhat al-Nusra, as was demonstrated in the recent battles along Syria’s coast.
Jaish al-Islam, of course, is also Saudi-backed and headed by Zahran Alloush—a former inmate of the infamous Sednaya prison in Damascus, and a man with deep filial ties to the kingdom and likely linked to its intelligence apparatuses, even if indirectly. Other, principally Qatari-backed Front members are also being challenged by local Islamist rivals. In short, the Front is simply no longer the dominant force, nor is it even a coherent group. Thus a tenuous military accommodation struck between Riyadh and Doha has also been rendered irrelevant, creating a further opportunity for the former to consolidate its proxies at the expense of the latter.
That Saudi Arabia is now trying to build something approaching a trustworthy rebel army in Syria, fortify its own 80-year role as the preferred U.S. client state in the Gulf on the basis of a newfound counterterrorism focus, and quash the Muslim Brotherhood, formerly the chief political beneficiary of the Arab Spring, seems remarkable turn of events. Only six months ago, the Saudis refused a seat at the United Nations Security Council in angry protest at U.S. policymaking.
And while a Saudi strategy more in line with U.S. counterterrorism goals is no doubt beneficial, there are obvious ways in which this pivot can ultimately hurt the rebel cause and further atomize the opposition. When moderates spend their time fighting jihadists, they do not fight Assad and his Iranian-made proxies, which are therefore left to consolidate more territory. Just this week, the regime retook most of Homs, the birthplace of the revolution, as part of a deal struck with the remaining fighters in the Old City. Islamist groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are marking this “evacuation” not as a tactical necessity but as a betrayal of first principles.
Furthermore, as analyst Tony Badran has pointed out, should the rebels be seen as little more than mirror-images of U.S. JSOCs, created to stamp out terrorist networks and not advance the goal of regime change, then the Syria crisis will be resolved almost exactly along the lines laid out by Damascus. That way lies one of two options: either reconciliation between the Saudi monarchy and the House of Assad or, what is more likely, the collapse of this U.S.-deferential Saudi policy altogether and another big rift between Riyadh and Washington.