Helicopters and expanded patrols now monitor Saudi Arabia’s 500-mile long northern border with Iraq. In early July, Riyadh sent 30,000 troops there, apparently steeling itself against the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which now calls itself the Islamic State. To many observers, it was a sign of Saudi Arabia reaping what it had sown.
Private financial support to jihadi groups in Syria such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra—al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate—and others has been widely reported during Syria’s civil war. Funds coming from Saudis and Kuwaitis to the most hardline rebels in the conflict often underscored the lack of international support to the so-called moderate opposition—consisting primarily of battalions of the fractured Free Syrian Army still focused on fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime—despite pledges from Washington. “Maybe we should all become jihadis,” one such rebel told Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting in the London Review of Books, last year. “Maybe then we’ll get money and support.”
As Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries move to respond to the chaos in Iraq, however, it is not clear that they will in fact rein in that support or sort out what have amounted to contradictory policies toward Syria’s civil war. “Saudi Arabia has an ambivalent strategy when it comes to ISIS,” political scientist Michael Lüders recently told Deutsche Welle: The government condemns it but appears to tolerate wealthy businessmen donating to the group. Riyadh could address the problem by preventing “the flow of money toward ISIS, but it does not do so—probably out of concern that such a move could lead to internal political turmoil.”