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Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars


In a recent Guardian article, (“Saudi Arabia says there is no future for Assad in Syria”) Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeil is quoted saying, “This [the Syrian civil war] could be a more lengthy process and a more destructive process but the choice is entirely that of Bashar al-Assad.” The foreign minister did not specify how Assad would be forcibly removed, only that Saudi Arabia would tolerate nothing short of a complete regime change in Syria. Jubeil claimed that Saudi Arabia is backing ‘moderate rebels’ in the civil war.” The Saudis are indeed backing ‘moderate’ rebels — if the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, is considered ‘moderate’.

Memories of Afghanistan still clearly in mind, Saudi Arabian officials are genuinely concerned about “blowback,” and for good reasons. A branch of Islamic State (aka: ISIS or ISIL) in Saudi Arabia has already carried out attacks in its northeastern, predominantly Shi’ite, province and against the Saudi government in others parts of the country. Saudi officials are well aware that Islamic State, with its roots in Saudi Wahhabism (an extreme form of fundamentalist Islam) the ruling family could come under attack, in part because of its close relationship to Washington and partly because of corruption at the highest levels of the Saudi government.

A February 2014 article by Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had banned its citizens from fighting in ‘foreign wars’, promising 3-20 years imprisonment for violating this law. It also banned its citizens from sending material support, including funding, to certain Jihadi groups fighting in Syria. It cannot stop all private donations, often worth millions of dollars, from reaching the Islamic State and its affiliates, however. There are roundabout ways to get money to these groups, such as through Kuwait, that are difficult to track. Not only is Islamic State gaining territory in Syria and Iraq, it has thousands of supporters, many from outside the region.

It is still not entirely understood what attracts so many disaffected young people to leave their countries and take up the Islamic State cause. “Islamist fascism” as it has been called, may have its immediate roots in Wahhabism and Saudi Arabian influence across the Middle East and North Africa, but a full understanding of what brought it about must include an understanding of Western colonial and imperial history in the Middle East during the 20th and 21st centuries. There is no question, for example, that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 played a major role in the creation of Islamic State and the sectarian warfare that is raging across much of the region today, particularly in Syria and Iraq; nevertheless, we would have to go back at least 200 years for an in-depth understanding of the role of outside powers in the creation (and destruction) of the modern Middle East.

After nearly six months of a brutal response by the Syrian military to non-violent protesters in Dera’a, Syria where protests for certain government reforms began in 2011, a number of people turned to armed conflict to fight the Assad regime. This opened the door for a host of competing outside proxies to arm and back a variety of different groups within Syria, upping the stakes of the war considerably. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S.- knowingly aided the rise of ISIS – albeit without fully understanding the monster they were creating.

For example, the United States has a long history of trying to topple the Ba’athist government in Syria, ruled by Hafez al-Assad for 40 years and now by his son, Bashar. A secret document leaked to the press by Wikileaks revealed that State Department and CIA officials sought to destabilize Syria for years, in part by stoking sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and through support of dormant anti-regime Islamist factions already within the country, and Islamists who fled to Syria after the US ‘surge’ in Iraq in 2007 and its exit in 2011.

US officials now claim to be arming and training only ‘moderate’ rebels now – not understanding that many ‘moderates’ have defected to, or are fighting against and losing to, Islamic State and other extremist factions. This helps account for the flow of arms into Syria, and into the hands of IS members, radically changing the character of the war by turning it into an even bloodier catastrophe.

Ironically, at the same time this tempest has engulfed parts of Syria and Iraq, rumors have been circulating that a high level Saudi prince has written a letter calling for ‘regime change’ in Riyadh, apparently supported by many in the royal family. Saudi Arabia’s own stability could conceivably be in question. The new Deputy Crown Prince, Muhammad (aka: “reckless”) bin Salman, a young, inexperienced leader has been made Defense Minister and is largely responsible for overseeing the terrible Saudi war in Yemen. According to a senior Saudi military officer who defected to Dhahran, many Saudis strongly oppose the war in Yemen and are appalled witnessing the most powerful Arab state in the region destroying the people and treasures of the poorest. Other rumblings of discontent with the current leadership by Saudi royals in the country have been noted as well. (“Saudi Royal calls for Regime Change in Riyadh”, the Guardian, 28 Sept.)

Hardline foreign policies advocated by the newly appointed Interior Minister, Muhammad bin Nayef, have been aimed primarily against Iran – seen as backing Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as pro-Assad forces in Syria. Saudi Arabian and Iranian-backed factions are contributing to the proxy war in Syria, made the more complicated by Russian and US airstrikes across the country and the still greater issues of power and hegemony by these two historic adversaries.

These airstrikes were supposed to represent a coordinated attack by Russia and the US against IS, but the US is claiming that Russia has attacked the US-backed ‘moderate’ rebel forces in an effort to bolster the Syrian regime, Russia’s first priority, while the US has been trying – and failing – to support those same forces in order to weaken Assad and IS simultaneously. US efforts have been a disastrous failure, even according to senior military personnel in Washington. This is a result, it would seem, of Obama’s having no real “policy” in the region to begin with. What can be surmised now is that Russian-US and Saudi-Iranian goals within an already tumultuous Syria may put the entire region on a collision course if there isn’t a more concerted effort to unify these and other proxy powers’ priorities soon. It is difficult to find a more cynical and deadly scenario in global politics today.

Jennifer Loewenstein is a human rights activist and faculty associate in Middle East Studies at at Penn State University.  She can be reached at:

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