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There’s more to Saudi involvement in Syria than meets the eye

August 10, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (C) attends a meeting with US Defence Secretary and White House Deputy National Security Advisor in Riyadh on April 19, 2017 [JONATHAN ERNST/AFP via Getty Images]

Buried within the explosive accusations against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the most attention grabbing of which was that a mere two weeks after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi the same murderous “Tiger Squad” travelled to Canada to assassinate Dr Saad Al-Jabri, was a telling allegation relating to Syria.

Dr Al-Jabri claims that Bin Salman was encouraging Vladimir Putin to intervene in Syria two months before the Russian armed forces committed to the war and effectively ended any chance of a military victory for the Syrian opposition. While some are commentating on this as if it is something of a surprise, an examination of the actions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE prior to this revelation would have led to a sound inference that their support for the Syrian opposition was much more ambiguous than was claimed. Ironically, another man had been lobbying the Russians to commit ground troops in Syria at the same time: Iran’s late General Qasem Soleimani. This is perhaps a sobering reminder that the Saudis and Iran offer a more aligned vision for the Middle East than either side would care to admit.

Circumstantially, both the Kingdom and the Emirates have been comprehensively opposed to any democratic or populist movement within the region. Whether it is Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine or Libya, both countries have sided with secular autocrats, typically in opposition to popular movements, particularly when the latter have been tinged with any flavour of active Islam. Khalifa Haftar, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Mohammed Dahlan, as well as the deep state linked to the late Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, are among those who fit the bill and have received support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. A democratic Syria would belie their framework for the Middle East, much less one that would have “Islamists” sitting at the table.

Indeed, the UAE revealed its inclination towards Assad explicitly when it reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018. A much more aggressive backing of Assad and an indication of its hatred towards the Syrian opposition came earlier this year when it is alleged that the UAE offered Assad $3 billion to restart his campaign against Idlib. A resumption of fighting on that front threatened to create a further 3 million Syrian refugees, more than a million of whom were already internally displaced, and would undoubtedly have led to the murder of thousands. Moreover, the UAE has reportedly been training Assad’s intelligence officers and pilots for two years, assistance that now violates the US Caesar Act.

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This leads to another circumstantial factor that indicates where Saudi Arabia and the UAE would have placed their lot; I refer, of course, to a shared hatred of Recep Tayyeb Erdogan’s Turkey. Feeding into this aspect of the narrative has been the pair of Gulf States’ support for the anti-Turkish YPG, support that has included military assistance. Reports of Egyptian deployments to northern Syria further strengthen this narrative, with Egypt one of the quartet — alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — that has blockaded Qatar since 2017 and engaged in a range of other parallel projects in the region. Furthermore, Riyadh has been footing the bill for the presence of the US troops in north-east Syria, where they protect their Kurdish allies and extract Syria’s oil, at a cost of $500 million and counting.

An allegation just as scandalous has been levelled against the UAE and the Kingdom in relation to the assassination of Syrian rebel leader Zahran Alloush, who posed perhaps the most significant military threat to Assad, as he marshalled opposition in the Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus. When he was killed, the opposition there disintegrated due to infighting and was soon defeated by Assad. The story goes that the coordinates for his location were delivered to Assad via the UAE, his only communication device being a satellite phone that had been given to him by Saudi Arabia. Those making these claims also allege that the UAE had a hand in the assassination of other high ranking members of the Syrian opposition.

While Riyadh might have offered a degree of support to some strands of the Syrian opposition, the entry of Russian troops into the equation, which Dr Saad Al-Jabri claims was called for by Bin Salman, would have allowed the Saudis to get closer to their goal of both curbing Iranian influence in Syria, as well as undermining the Syrian opposition. Ultimately, a reading of the Kingdom’s policy in the region highlights the Saudis’ aversion to the idea of a democratic Syria. Certainly, the Islamic influence present in significant portions of the Syrian opposition, and their alignment with Turkey, renders them a bigger evil in Riyadh’s eyes than Assad, a man who fits their mould of Arab leadership: secular, autocratic and relentlessly brutal in dealing with “his” citizens. There is much more to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Syria than meets the eye.

Turkey and the others 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.