What could possibly go wrong?
- By Jonathan SchanzerJonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah scolded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week for failing to coordinate with Arab states before vetoing a United Nations resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Emboldened by the lack of international action, Assad’s forces are now slaughtering civilians in the streets at an even greater rate. Referring to the bloodshed, the king ominously warned Medvedev that Saudi Arabia "will never abandon its religious and moral obligations towards what’s happening."
The last time the Saudis decided they had a moral obligation to scuttle Russian policies, they gave birth to a generation of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan who are still wreaking havoc three decades later.
According to news reports confirmed by a member of the Syrian opposition, Riyadh currently sends weapons on an ad hoc basis to the Syrian opposition by way of Sunni tribal allies in Iraq and Lebanon. But in light of recent developments, more weapons are almost certainly on their way. After his delegation withdrew in frustration from last week’s Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said that humanitarian aid to Syria was "not enough" and that arming the Syrian rebels was an "excellent idea." Soon afterward, an unnamed official commented in the state-controlled Saudi press that Riyadh sought to provide the Syrian opposition with the "means to achieve stability and peace and to allow it the right to choose its own representatives." Meanwhile, Saudi clerics are now openly calling for jihad in Syria and scorning those who wait for Western intervention. One prominent unsanctioned cleric, Aidh al-Qarni, openly calls for Assad’s death.
Other Sunni Gulf states, principally Qatar, may be contributing weapons. On Monday, Feb. 27, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said, "We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves." The positions of other regional actors are less clear. But whether or not they supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army — the armed opposition composed of defectors and local militia — all these Sunni states now want the Assad regime to crumble because it is an ally and proxy of their sworn Shiite enemy, Iran, which destabilizes the region with terrorism and nuclear threats.
For the Saudis, depriving the Russians of a Middle Eastern toehold is an added bonus. The two countries share a long-standing animus. In the 1970s, the Saudis used their enormous oil wealth to inflict pain on the Soviets wherever they could. The Saudis fought communist governments and political movements with more than $7.5 billion in foreign and military aid to countries like Egypt, North Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan. Saudi funding was particularly instrumental in supporting anti-Soviet (and anti-Libyan) operations and alliances in Angola, Chad, Eritrea, and Somalia.
But the Saudis didn’t simply counter communism. They fueled a generation of zealous Islamist fighters who later caused bigger problems elsewhere. These Islamists were instrumental to the Saudis after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Inspired by the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and armed with Saudi funds and weapons, Arab mujahideen poured into Afghanistan. (An estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Arabs and Afghans fought there at any given time during the war, according to terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.) After a decade of guerrilla war during which the Soviets sustained heavy losses, the Red Army withdrew, and their puppet government in Kabul fell soon thereafter.
A lot, of course, has changed. The Saudis no longer need to fight communism. The new Russians have no ideology and are driven purely by political interests. Additionally, the Kremlin is now allergic to putting boots on the ground in the Middle East or South Asia. Russia’s new strategy in the region is to make money and gain influence by selling arms, military hardware, and technology to Iran and Syria.
Although arming rogue regimes may seem reckless, it’s Russia’s last opportunity to exert leverage in a region where, since the Cold War’s end, almost every other country has turned to Washington for arms.
Tartus, the second-largest port in Syria, has been the cornerstone of Russian-Syrian naval cooperation since the 1970s. In the past decade, the Russians have doubled down with improvements and investments in what is their primary Mediterranean toehold. In recent months, Russian and Iranian warships have docked in Tartus to show support for the Assad regime. Through it, they have reportedly provided untold amounts of weaponry with which Assad’s army continues to attack anti-regime protesters.
The Saudis know that if Syria falls, Tartus falls with it. That’s one more reasons to send arms to the opposition.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration continues to express deep misgivings about sending weapons, claiming that the Syrian opposition is too much of a black box. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently expressed concerns that the weapons could flow to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or Hamas. But the Saudis have run out of patience. They now unabashedly advocate for arming the Free Syrian Army.
This is not an empty threat. The Saudis know how to procure and move weapons, and they have no shortage of cash. If Riyadh wants to arm the opposition, armed it shall be. And those who receive the weapons will likely be at least amenable to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that has spawned dangerous Islamist movements worldwide.
Of course, a Saudi-led insurgency would not be in the cards if the Obama administration were not so opposed to empowering the opposition. But the longer Obama waits and the deeper the humanitarian crisis worsens, the more likely it becomes that other actors will tip the balance in Syria. Using history as a guide, none would be more dangerous than Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians and Russians may yet pay a price for propping up Assad in Syria. But if the Saudis have their way, the world may pay a price too.