PICKING SIDES

Will the Saudis Let Us Beat ISIS?

Riyadh, Ankara, and other members of the U.S.-backed coalition have different priorities. Their proxy battles in Syria could go on indefinitely.

12.18.15 6:00 AM ET

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. The conference’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down at the start of a transition process—a total nonstarter—and the confusion over Ahrar al-Sham simultaneously signing the declaration and withdrawing from the talks reveal the lack of seriousness this conference embodied.

What of the Islamic military alliance? Just a day after its announcement, the Lebanese and Pakistani foreign ministers and the Malaysian defense minister denied their countries’ involvement in the Saudi-led coalition. The Lebanese and Pakistani governments denied even being consulted on it.

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. Most notably, these countries have backed the Army of Conquest since May of this year, which is comprised of Ahrar al-Sham and other Salafist groups. The Army of Conquest even includes Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, as one of its dominant members. (There was reporting that Nusra broke away from the Army of Conquest in late October, however this was based on contested allegations from Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership. In early December, Nusra posted a propaganda video with Army of Conquest branding.) It was the victories of these forces in northern Syria that eventually led to Russia’s intervention and Iran’s escalation to protect the Assad regime.

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.

Given the fragmentation of the opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are likely aware that supporting these Salafist groups will not bring forth a stable government that is friendly to their interests. 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.

While a unified Syria may eventually be possible for most of its population in western, central, and southern Syria (granted, this is years away), it has become hard to believe that the northeastern Kurdish region will not break away and fall under the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Over the course of the war, Kurdish forces have made agreements and arrangements with both Assad and parts of the opposition, and in doing so, they have already carved out de facto autonomy for themselves.

Turkey fears that this potential quasi state (Syrian Kurdistan) would be a base of operations for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, with whom Ankara continues to clash. Turkey will go to great lengths to avoid this development, including supporting the Salafist rebels who dominate northwestern Syria and turning a blind eye to ISIS, which is taking advantage of the porous Syrian-Turkish border.

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?

As Washington tries to pull together a third round of Syria talks to pursue an end to the war, the fate of Assad and the status of the Salafist rebels both remain points of contention. Though Kerry seems to have sidelined the issue of Assad’s transition for the time being (and deferring his fate is likely necessary to make any progress on ending the conflict), the dictator will eventually need to leave power—and perhaps the country—for Syria to ever see real unity again. However, 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.

In supporting a select group of highly vetted Syrian rebels, Washington has thus far tried to avoid arming or training the radical Salafist militias itself (though preventing U.S. weapons from falling into their hands has not been entirely successful). Attempting to carefully navigate Syria’s opposition to avoid giving support to disreputable fighters will not be enough. 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.

Simply demanding they stop will not likely persuade Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to abandon their goals of bleeding Iran and preventing a Syrian Kurdistan, so the United States should be prepared to go further in pressuring its allies if necessary. 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.

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The two broad coalitions—Russia and Iran, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—are all playing a game of chicken in Syria; the only positive outcome will be if each side changes course.

Although Assad cannot leave in the near future, if Russia and Iran back him indefinitely and Syria never sees much-needed reforms, the country will not again be unified. If the Gulf States and Turkey continue backing Salafist militias, not only will unity fail, but the lack of governance in large parts of the country will continue to be a major threat to Syrians and to the rest of the world. If both sides stay on course, the war will rage on and Syria will continue to fall apart. 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.