Disillusioned with what they consider the Obama administration’s faint-hearted approach to Syria, and moved by a common national interest to remove both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have evidently come together to reclaim the initiative in Syria in order to defeat the Assad regime and the Islamic State. Indeed, al-Nusra and Zahran Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam have been receiving direct and indirect help from Ankara and Riyadh. Both capitals have been trying to reconfigure the leadership of al-Nusra in order to remove its terrorism designation. At the same time, they have been beefing up the power of Alloush and nudging him in the direction of forging a strategic alliance with al-Nusra. The military cooperation between the two parties over the campaign to seize Idlib and Alloush’s supportive statements about al-Nusra clearly support this logic. The recent attempts at eliminating key members and co-founders of al-Nusra, such as Abou Himam al-Souri, Abou Musa’b al-Filistini and Abou Omar al-Kurdi, provide further evidence of this. No less significant, Saudi Arabia’s protégé and point man in Syria, Alloush, made a surprising visit to Istanbul in late April apparently at the invitation of Turkish authorities. This visit would not have been possible without Saudi-Turkish cooperation.
Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are trying to reconfigure the leadership of al-Nusra by eliminating some of its hardline Salafi-jihadists in order to project it as a Syrian moderate Islamist force. Meanwhile, it is an open secret that Saudi Arabia and some in the Islamist opposition have been trying to sever al-Nusra’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda. What remains to be seen is the fate of the leader of al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, who has cooperated with Alloush but has not broken his allegiance to al-Qaeda.
Apparently, from a Saudi and Turkish vantage point, their support of al-Nusra and Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam is sensible and more consequential than any other alternative. From an ideological perspective, Alloush shares the Salafi-jihadi ideology of al-Nusra, and, despite the ideological incongruity between Saudi Arabia’s quietist Salafism and al-Nusra and Alloush’s jihadi Salafism, both share principal Salafi tenets revolving around emulating the methodology of the salaf al-salih (pious ancestors) who drastically expanded the realm of Islam from 632 to 661, and applying the concept of Tawhid (unity or oneness of God) as a means to tawhid al-Ummah (unite the community of believers). Significantly, most of al-Nusra and Alloush’s militants are Syrians and possess illustrious warfare and terror skills. Obviously, both Riyadh and Ankara believe that neither the Islamic State nor the Syrian regime can be removed without al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam.
As the Obama administration ponders its next step in Syria, it has to take into consideration that a) the Syrian regime is not nearing its end but transforming into a hybrid regime, whose face may continue to be Syrian but its mind has become Iranian, and b) Riyadh and Ankara might depict al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam as a moderate Islamist opposition but in reality their hue remains Salafi-jihadism. No free or democratic Syria may emerge under these conditions.
If the Obama administration is to degrade and defeat the Islamic State, its biggest challenge is going to be how to harness a regional ground force capable of defeating the Islamic State and checking the power and space of the Syrian regime, without alienating both Turkey and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the administration should begin considering not only posting an interagency task force to the region to support the work of Special Envoy John Allen, as Hof proposed, but also commissioning the CIA to plan an inner coup within the regime. Former CIA agent and tested hand Robert Baer could be the right man for the job.
Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003); Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (Palgrave, 2011); and Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (Georgetown University Press, 2014).