The Skeptics

Saudi Arabia Will Use Trump to Gain Leverage over the War in Syria

As President Trump muses periodically about a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, he confronts warnings, including from his own foreign-policy advisers, that such a move would risk the onset of greater chaos in that country. He has responded with suggestions that an Arab stabilization force supplement and gradually replace U.S. troops to forestall that danger. However, the replacement force he has in mind would not be a generic “Arab” contingent, as he and other proponents describe. It would consist primarily of personnel from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

Such a force would be neither politically neutral nor dedicated to restoring and preserving peace in Syria. Instead it would be the instrument of Sunni Arab power dedicated to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, since the earliest stages of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and 2012, the Gulf powers (along with Turkey) have been intent on that objective. The rebellion against Assad is primarily a Sunni bid for power against Assad’s coalition of religious minorities. As early as 2012, journalists embedded with rebel forces noted that they were virtually all Sunnis. Arrayed against them were Assad’s followers, primarily members of his quasi-Shiite Alawite sect, Christians and Druze. Syrian Kurds were busy pursuing their own agenda of carving out a de facto independent state in the north.

Predictably, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other Sunni powers backed the rebels to the hilt, supplying them with both money and military hardware. Soon, though, they lost control of some of those forces—factions that evolved into ISIS. As early as 2012, the United States cooperated with Riyadh and Ankara, sending “nonlethal” aid to supposedly moderate insurgents. By 2013, Washington was shipping arms to them, further entangling the United States in an increasingly murky ethno-religious conflict. The effort to boost the fortunes of Riyadh’s Syrian clients failed, though, when Russia intervened in 2015 and backed government forces with extensive air power.

Introducing a bogus stabilization force at a time when Assad and his Russian patrons are on the verge of victory over the insurgents is a last-ditch Sunni ploy to help the rebels avoid defeat. Even reasonably astute U.S. officials should understand that reality. They should also comprehend that Riyadh’s goals do not necessarily benefit America’s interests. Most of the factions that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have backed are staunchly Islamist. One prominent client is the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham. And Saudi support also seems to be flowing to Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) once that group officially ended its ties with Al Qaeda.

The emergence of a post–Assad government that such factions would dominate might advance the agenda of the ultra-conservative Saudi royal family, but replacing a secular dictator like Assad with a Sunni Islamist regime does not enhance U.S. security in the slightest. Yet Syria is not the only arena in which Washington is supporting Riyadh’s policies contrary to America’s best interests. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have backed the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. The United States continues to refuel coalition aircraft and provide intelligence data to assist those planes strike targets in that country. New information indicates that Washington has Special Forces on the ground to combat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Washington’s collusion with Saudi Arabia’s military campaign continues despite mounting evidence of the coalition’s repeated, systematic war crimes against civilians in Yemen.