In the wake of the Bush administration’s intervention in Afghanistan, and more disastrously, in Iraq, the Obama Administration has been circumspect in its involvement in the Middle East. It has lent rhetorical support to the Arab Spring, calibrating its policy to the situation on the ground and to U.S. interests. It has properly been reticent to add a third armed conflict in the Muslim world to the U.S. agenda. The administration acted militarily in Libya only with both United Nations Security Counsel and Arab League blessings, and then allowed others, notably France, to do the heavy lifting. This approach has been criticized as “leading from behind” but it reflects a proper understanding of the limits of U.S. power and influence in the region.
In Syria too, the Obama Administration has been active but cautious. It has led the effort in the U.N. to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime and has been active in providing non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition. On the ground, however, it is Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, Qatar, that have been supplying the anti-Assad forces with weapons and finance. Whether as a U.S. proxy, in coordination with U.S. intelligence agencies or purely on its own initiative, Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as the primary source of financial, political and military support for the anti-regime forces in Syria. At a recent Gulf Cooperation Counsel summit, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal pronounced that the arming of the Syrian opposition was a “duty.” Such a policy may serve the interests of the Saudi Kingdom by undermining a key ally of its strategic adversary, Iran but the results can only be disastrous for U.S. interests and the future of Syria.
As it has in other conflicts throughout the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is expanding its influence in the Syrian conflict by arming and funding those elements of the opposition whose aims are limited to the establishment of a narrowly defined Sunni, Salafist government, one that takes its religious inspiration from the Wahabi government in Riyadh. Such an approach will only alienate the secularly oriented segments of the opposition as well as those religious minorities, Christians, Shia, and assorted others, that are already wary of the opposition’s goals for a future Syria. These religions minorities, while often finding the Assad regime distasteful, see the minority Alawite government as the last layer of protection for minorities from the Sunni mass movements taking control throughout the region.
In addition to narrowing the base of support for the Syrian opposition, Saudi support for the religious extremist segments of the opposition will strike a blow against the future of a Syrian democracy. No nation is more singularly unsuited to the fostering of a pluralistic democracy in Syria than the tribal absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The nature of the Saudi regime does not simply make it unlikely that it will pursue a democratic alternative to the Assad government, it guarantees that the Saudis will be outright hostile to a pluralistic, secular democracy that does not hold a narrowly-defined version of Sunni Islam at its center.
Last, a Syrian government brought to power and buttressed primarily by Saudi support would likely draw the immediate opposition of the Assad regime’s primary ally and Saudi Arabia’s strategic adversary, Iran. Iran’s overt and covert interference in Lebanese and Iraqi politics suggests that the Islamic Republic would not hesitate to intervene in the affairs of a post-Assad Syria if it perceived that its interests were threatened in the region.
Each of these outcomes would be a direct result of Saudi Arabia’s current policies in Syria and each is inimical to U.S. interests. U.S. policy in Syria should shift to a more active footing to counter Saudi influence. With or without U.N. Security Counsel support, the U.S. should work closely with its European and regional allies, Turkey in particular, to create a safe corridor through which to supply select secular elements in the Syrian opposition. More than anything, the U.S. must make its presence felt with the Syrian resistance and must, within the limits of its resources, influence the composition and tenor of a future Syrian state.
While the administration’s reticence to escalate its involvement in Syria is understandable, Saudi Arabia’s unobstructed interference in the Syrian conflict is likely to produce a political outcome that is inimical to American interest and to the future of a democratic Syria.
Mirkow is a Washington, DC based international attorney. He has lived for several years in Saudi Arabia and has worked and traveled extensively in the region.