There is considerable hypocrisy among America’s so-called friends who are urging the Barack Obama Administration to do something about Syria. We in the antiwar community have been focusing on the role of the Israel Lobby in urging an attack on Syria as a stepping stone to another much bigger war with Iran after doing everything possible to make sure that peace talks with both countries fail but Israel is not alone. Saudi Arabia, which clandestinely supported the generals in Cairo prior to their coup that replaced Prime Minister Mohamed Morsi, has also been working assiduously behind the scenes to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Riyadh has become so frustrated by American inaction that it has begun to openly criticize the White House, turning down a U.S. brokered seat on the United Nations Security Council after informing Washington that it would make up for any shortfall in US aid to Egypt. Its former and current intelligence chiefs have recently gone public in expressing their incomprehension of US foreign policy and have made clear that they will increase their own efforts to support the Syrian rebels, even if that means inadvertently supporting groups connected to al-Qaeda. Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence, went so far as to express his "high level of disappointment in the US government’s dealings."
One might reasonably ask why two American client states consider themselves sufficiently entitled to demand US military action in a situation in which no American vital interest is at stake. The answer would be that they both fear Iran, though for different reasons, and, knowing that their own resources are incapable of doing the job, would like the United States to take care of their problem for them. They frame their case for war in various ways to make it palatable to the Barack Obama White House and the American public, both repeatedly emphasizing the danger of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Israel also cites the humanitarian crisis on its border and the threat of Syria’s remaining weapons of mass destruction while Saudi Arabia adds its own perspective that the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis threatens to destabilize the entire region. Both nations are also considerably upset over Washington’s failure to support the military regime in Cairo as they considered the elected government of Mohamed Morsi dangerous to their own security, Riyadh because an elected Arab government could fuel copycat demands for democracy in Saudi Arabia and Israel because the Morsi regime was developing friendly ties with Hamas in Gaza.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia also play the terrorism card, which always finds an appreciative audience in Washington. The Israelis claim that Syria directly supports Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, and is itself part of the broader terrorism network controlled by Tehran, which includes Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. The Saudis are hardly able to complain about Hezbollah and Hamas given their sometimes role as fair weather friends of the Palestinians, but they do blame Iran for subversion in their own country and also in other Gulf States, noting the unrest among the Shi’a minorities which they claim is being funded and otherwise supported by the Iranian government.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are, to be sure, unlikely allies, but both share a belief that the White House does not want to get involved in any new military conflicts in the Middle East. Whether that is true or not is difficult to judge as the Obama administration has come down on both sides of every issue, alternatively appearing belligerent and appeasing, testing which way the wind blows in congress and among the public before every move. Secretary of State John Kerry has been on the front line in the dispute, having had to suffer through a seven hour harangue from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin while in Rome recently preceded by a Paris damage control sit down with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister. That Kerry should be on the defensive over White House reluctance to use military force in two situations in which no military solution appears viable short of massive intervention to bring about regime change in Damascus and Tehran is revealing of the weakness of the White House, beleaguered by its two powerful clients and surrounded by both Republican hawks and AIPAC inspired Democratic friends of Israel.
The public dispute about policy somewhat conceals what is going on secretly. Saudi Arabia’s current intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud has reportedly been jumpstarting efforts to train and supply the Syrian insurgents, using a military base provided by Jordan and trainers from the US, Britain, and France. The Saudis reportedly buy the weapons on the international arms market that are then passed on to the Europeans and Americans for delivery and use in training the recruits. There have also been reports that American marines are training rebels in Saudi Arabia itself, which would be an extremely audacious move and one likely to be exploited by extremists who see their presence as a violation of the Muslim holy sites.
The Saudis have also been attempting to write checks in some uncongenial surroundings. On July 31st Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud traveled to Moscow to discuss "shared values" with Russian President Vladimir Putin, offering to buy military gear from the Russians and make other concessions in return for approval of plans to bomb Syria. More ominously, Bandar also claimed that he would be able to control jihadi terrorist threats that just might be directed against the Sochi winter Olympics, a bit like Godfather Vito Corleone promising movie studio head Jack Woltz that he would make his problems with a drug addicted actress and labor unions go away. Woltz wound up with a horse’s head in his bed. Putin nevertheless found it to be an offer he could refuse, dismissing the discussion as "philosophical."
The Saudis are considerably vexed by the slow pace of the rebel training, largely due to White House reticence over getting too directly involved and concern over who or what exactly the insurgents represent. In spite of months of sometimes frantic activity, only fifty trainees have finished the course and are reportedly prepared to re-enter Syria. Bandar and his associates, seeking to speed up the process, are possibly venting their frustration by cooking the books on atrocities linked to the Syrian government. They have been active in providing the evidence that the regime used chemical weapons and there has also been a suggestion that the rebels might have themselves used chemicals provided by the Saudis to create a "provocation" that would result in a western military response coupled with a Russian withdrawal of support from al-Assad.
By all accounts the Syrian government is apparently winning its civil war and there also reports from the US intelligence community that intervention at this time, unless it were massive to include troops on the ground, would not change that outcome. But the presence of radical jihadists in the conflict has added another dimension to it, destabilizing neighboring Iraq and making all the participants in the conflict nervous about what might happen if the wrong people rise to the top in the chaos. It might plausibly be stated that George W. Bush introduced al-Qaeda to Iraq and Obama does not want to be personally blamed for doing the same in Syria, particularly after the fiasco of Libya, which is currently being run by various militias.
What the United States interest might be in all of the above is difficult to discern, which is possibly why arming the rebels has mostly been in the form of verbal assurances while the actual training has slowed to a crawl. Israel and Saudi Arabia only see a military solution in defense of what they perceive as their own interests but are understandably reluctant to see their own soldiers die when they think that can cajole Uncle Sam into doing the heavy lifting. That the Israelis and Saudis are impassioned about Iran only enough to let someone else do the fighting should suggest to the White House that even they are nervous about the collateral damage that inevitably will come out of any military action and would like to kick the can down the road all the way to Washington. If they were really threatened by Iran one suspects that their response would be more robust. Meanwhile they will see if they can shame and coerce President Obama into doing what they think is best for them. Hopefully, he will be able to resist the pressure.