As the civil war in Syria becomes more acute, the United States must reassess its strategy toward that key Middle Eastern state, in particular, its stance on the role that Saudi Arabia has been playing in the Syrian conflict. Continued Saudi influence in Syria will only further destabilize the situation on the ground, undermine U.S. interests in the region and dim the prospects for a future democratic Syria.
In the wake of the Bush administration’s interventions 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, while calibrating its policies to circumstances on the ground and 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 a mandate from both the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League, 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 cautious. It has led the effort in the U.N. to impose sanctions on the Syrian regime and been active in providing nonlethal 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 financing. 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 Council summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal went so far as to call the arming of the Syrian opposition 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 could spell disaster for U.S. interests and the future of Syria.