This week the New York Times published an article confirming what we at Antiwar.com have been warning about for months: “Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists,” according to top US officials and Middle East diplomats.
This has been known for some time. While the Obama administration has provided Syrian rebels with tens of millions of dollars, communications gear, intelligence, etc., US allies in the Persian Gulf like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have sent in weapons. But this was a coordinated effort: President Obama sent dozens of CIA agents to the Turkish border in order to facilitate the delivery of weapons from the Gulf states to rebels.
All along, they claimed they had a proper vetting process which allowed them to pick and choose which of Syria’s disparate, unorganized rebel groups would receive the assistance, and avoid the thousands of jihadist fighters, many of whom are fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda. But this was a farce. A US official told the Washington Post early on that the CIA knew very little about who was receiving US support, nor could they control exactly where it ended up. “It’s still the case that without actual access to Syria, it’s hard to know exactly who they are,” the official said. The New York Times also reported that the Obama administration has been “increasing aid to the rebels” even though “we don’t really know” who is receiving it.
“The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda,” reported the New York Times almost four months ago. “The presence of jihadists in Syria has accelerated in recent days in part because of a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country’s long border in Iraq.” Many other news reports corroborated these findings. Foreign jihadists “intent on turning Syria into an autocratic theocracy have swollen the ranks of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad,” Reuters reported in September.
Exactly how much of the aid from the Gulf states is coordinated with the US and how much is done on their own initiative is hard to know. But Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait are supposed to be client states. The great thrust of America’s Grand Strategy in the Middle East is about propping up these Gulf dictatorships so that they conform to US demands on key strategic issues. How is it that Washington is helping deliver lethal aid from our allies in the Gulf to nefarious insurgent groups of the same type that were labeled “terrorists” when fighting against US forces in Iraq?
“As it has in other conflicts throughout the Muslim world,” writes Frank J. Mirkow, a Washington, DC based international attorney who has lived in Saudi Arabia for several years, Saudi Arabia is aiming to bolster “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.”
The irony of all this was pointed out boldly by renowned Middle East journalist Robert Fisk not long ago. “President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, say they want a democracy in Syria,” Fisk wrote. “But Qatar is an autocracy and Saudi Arabia is among the most pernicious of caliphate-kingly-dictatorships in the Arab world.”
“Rulers of both states inherit power from their families – just as Bashar has done – and Saudi Arabia is an ally of the Salafist-Wahabi rebels in Syria, just as it was the most fervent supporter of the medieval Taliban during Afghanistan’s dark ages,” he added.
US-Saudi interests were similarly aligned back when the Soviets invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s. The CIA funneled money to the mujahideen through Pakistan while Saudi Arabia – its Gulf neighbors in lock-step – contributed money, weapons, and actual fighters to join in the insurgency. As former State Department advisor Aaron David Miller has recognized the Syria situation could have similarly dangerous consequences. “We saw the blowback in Afghanistan, where Saudi-inspired Wahhabi doctrine motivated a cadre of Arabs to fight first against the Russians and then against the West,” he wrote. Former Middle East analyst at the CIA, Paul Pillar, has also made this connection.
US policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s is now almost universally looked upon as shortsighted in the context of the blowback America later reaped because of it. What we’re doing in Syria may attract similar consequences. These are the makings of blowback. These are the ingredients of the unintended consequences preached about by everybody who managed to say “I told you so,” following the September 11th attacks.
But perceived geo-political interests too often trump common sense. Washington has long had the Syrian regime on its sights for regime change. They’re eager to take advantage of the conflict to shape a post-Assad government to their own liking, hubris be damned. It appears that the most hazardous aspect of the foreign component of the Syria conflict – radical Sunni authoritarian monarchies – are being let loose to shape the conflict to be the next jihad. And decades of nefarious alliances with these regimes are taking a front seat to US interests.
In election seasons, the two parties toe the line even more than usual. And since both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney largely agree that we ought to be aiding unscrupulous rebels in Syria, repeating the mistake of a generation ago, the arguments against doing so are excluded from the debate. And that’s not in anybody’s interest.