Commentary Magazine


Can the Saudis Be Trusted in Syria?

What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

And today? New York Times reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt claim: “The [Saudi] weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”

Maybe so, but I’m skeptical. The Saudis, who are after all Wahhabis, have a natural ideological predisposition to favor other hard-line Islamic groups rather than democrats and secularists, in whom they have no interest in taking power in any country in the Middle East.

The only reliable method of helping truly moderate Syrian rebel factions would be if the U.S. were to get more directly involved. It is possible that there is some covert American military aid being provided. But if so, that would represent a significant turnaround from the hands-off policy that the Obama administration has self-destructively followed in Syria over the past two-plus years even as the death toll has climbed north of 70,000.

It is still not too late for the U.S. to get more actively involved in breaking this stalemate, pushing Bashar Assad out of power, and trying to buttress more moderate elements at the expense of al-Qaeda affiliates. But that will require a major rethink of the administration’s “lead from behind” policy, whose only effect–in the eyes of ordinary Syrians–has been to keep Assad in power.