Saudi Arabia's ultimate betrayal of the Syrian revolution

Saudi Arabia's ultimate betrayal of the Syrian revolution
8 min read
16 Aug, 2017
Comment: Turkey has been accused in UAE media of abandoning Syria's rebels, but it is Saudi Arabia and the Emirates who have pursued cynical policies in Syria, writes Sam Hamad
With friends like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Syrian revolution needs no enemies [Anadolu]
It’s something of an understatement to say Syria is a ‘multifaceted’ war – often discerning the dynamics of different microeconomic and macroeconomic struggles is half the battle.  But as counter-revolution sweeps across the land, the ‘geopolitical’ shifts that will affect the lives of all Syrians continue to change.

The most prominent of these happenings has not just been the abandonment of the anti-Assad rebels by their self-declared allies, a process which began years ago, but rather a battle over the narrative of who was to blame for the catastrophe that has engulfed the Syrian revolution.

There’s something much bigger at stake than the fate of mere Syrians in the mind of these actors: an attempt to curtail and ideologically condition the trajectory of the Arab spring

One could roughly split the sides in this struggle into two main blocs, though there are nuances and areas of disagreement between the two, namely the Saudi Arabia-UAE-US bloc and the Qatar-Turkish bloc.  In many ways, this is an old struggle made new – one must never forget the divide that defined the calamity of the original attempts to set up coherent opposition.

To cut multiple long stories short, Saudi Arabia refused to arm rebel forces or back opposition outfits connected to the Muslim Brotherhood or any force that wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Saudi interests, while Qatar and Turkey had a more open approach to arming and aiding groups.  This is essentially the main dynamic of the divide – Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to ensure that democratic Islamist forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are not allowed to triumph, not just in Syria but across the region

The contours of this clash are hardly difficult to discern. We’ve seen the Saudi and UAE-led ‘siege’ on Qatar.  We’ve seen Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s own counter-revolutionary rampage across the region, most notably their support in Egypt for Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s brutal counter-revolution against the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party.  In addition to this, the UAE, and to a lesser but not insignificant degree, Saudi Arabia, have ploughed their resources into backing the hugely destructive anti-Muslim Brotherhood crusade of Khalifa Haftar in Libya. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE love nothing more than to justify everything they do by conjuring up the spectre of Iran

Shifting the blame

This was the spirit that lurked behind a recent op-ed in the UAE newspaper The National, which sought to pin the blame firmly on Turkey for the current plight of the Syrian rebels.  The article somewhat briefly and irresolutely mentions that Saudi Arabia has allegedly called for the Syrian opposition, or its chief negotiating body the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), to accept the rule of Bashar al-Assad as a precondition for any negotiations with Assad and his allies. 

The author also attempts to casually exonerate Riyadh for what has been a clear shift in its policy towards the Syrian rebels since the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, claiming that it ‘considered lifting pressure from the regime in Damascus as a way to reduce its need for Iran’, before going on to say that Turkey’s alleged policy shift has been ‘most damaging’. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE love nothing more than to justify everything they do by conjuring up the spectre of Iran, but there is absolutely no doubt that the rationale behind Saudi’s veritable abandonment of the Syrian rebels has everything to do with it falling behind Trump’s policy towards the Syrian revolution, as well as it being congruent with their specific stance against liberty in the region.  Riyadh went out of its way to accommodate Trump, and while one calculation might be Trump’s rhetorically hawkish stance against Iranian expansionism, the reality is that the policy casually dismissed by the author above has been far more destructive than anything Turkey has done.

One of the last lifelines to the rebels, no matter how paltry, was cut off to some rebels and, far from it being a US decision alone, it was very much a joint decision by Saudi and the US

Falling in line with Trump, and Assad

The policy that the author claims is a way to force Assad to reduce his reliance on Iran has meant, in concrete terms, the announcement of the end of the, to quote Trump himself, ‘dangerous and wasteful’ not-so-secret CIA arms and funding programme for anti-Assad rebels.  One must understand that though this programme was never even remotely adequate or even geared towards allowing rebel forces to overthrow Assad (though it did wield successes), the main function of the CIA in it was to ‘vet’ rebel brigades and ensure that weapons got over the border with Jordan – the weapons themselves were provided by Saudi Arabia. 

In other words, one of the last lifelines to the rebels, no matter how paltry, was cut off to some rebels and, far from it being a US decision alone, it was very much a joint decision by Saudi and the US.  However, it was just a public confirmation of what has been a reality in Syria for two years – Saudi aid to rebels dried up. 

As per the anti-Brotherhood agenda of Saudi when it came to arming rebels, this briefly changed in 2015, following the death of King Abdullah and the assumption of the throne by Salman.  Salman decided that Abdullah’s policy towards groups like the Muslim Brotherhood had been too harsh, which saw the Army of Conquest, which was led by the anti-Saudi moderate Islamist force Ahrar al-Sham, as well as groups like the MB-affiliated democratic Islamist force Sham Legion, receive Saudi-sourced TOW anti-tank missiles. 

This was in June 2015, but, after Russia intervened decisively on behalf of Assad and the US turned towards focussing solely on fight against the Islamic State group (IS), the aid to the anti-Assad rebels dried up and the momentum gained by this influx of weaponry was stalled and reversed.  It was at this moment that Iranian-led pro-regime forces, buoyed by the Russian air force, began to solidify their semi-occupation of Syria.

The Turkish role in Syria, while flawed, is nowhere near as destructive as the current US or Saudi policy

Clarifying Turkey's role in Syria 

The author of course mentions none of this.  Instead, he ironically blames Turkey for shifting its focus away from anti-Assad rebels to ‘focussing on disrupting Kurdish expansion’, adding that Turkey ‘has since worked closely with Iran and Russia … politically … and ‘militarily on the ground’.

There’s little doubt that Turkey’s general anti-Kurdish separatist agenda fuels its current policy in Northern Syria (and liberty in Syria’s revolution ought to have no ethnic or sectarian limits), but Turkey isn’t trying to take Rojava proper – it is aiding rebels to take back villages and towns near the Turkish border that have been occupied by IS, or which the YPG grabbed under the cover of deadly Russian airstrikes. 

The YPG have imposed their rule on these areas and, in places that are not needed to cement their one-party state, have occupied the cities or handed-back control to the Assad regime.  Moreover, as was the case in Aleppo and Manbij, we’ve seen the YPG directly aid the Iranian-led militias that the author accuses Turkey of working with.

Unlike the YPG, the rebel forces that fight with Turkey remain committed to fighting Assad and refugees are able to be resettled – this and ensuring genuine ceasefires is the main calculation behind Turkey’s role in the Astana process, which contrary to the author’s sentiments, Turkey has never said was an alternative to Geneva. 

But while the author wants to paint a picture of Turkey ‘collaborating’ with Assad, Russia and Iran, and while it’s certainly true that Turkey has good relations with both, its role in Syria, while flawed, is nowhere near as destructive as the current US or Saudi policy.  Look, for example, at the Saudi/US-backed Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, which has been transformed from one of the most efficient anti-Assad coalitions to a mere shell that would, under pain of losing its funding and backing, look the other way as Iranian-led pro-Assad forces murdering Syrians to fight only IS. 

The author also tries to put the blame of the current triumph of the fascist counter-revolutionaries of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria) in Idlib, claiming that ‘Turkey also stood idly by as HTS weakened and fragmented Ahrar Al Sham … and forced it to give up control of a border crossing.’.  It’s perfectly true that Turkey hasn’t done enough to support rebel forces in Idlib an that its policy has been conditioned by US pressure to focus solely on IS, but these are the same rebels that Saudi Arabia and the US have now officially abandoned. 

The author also misses the fact that Turkey sent rebel forces it funds into Idlib to bolster moderate forces against HTS, as well as providing medical services to injured rebels. 

Turkey, as with all other states, will ultimately put its own interests first.  But this does not mean that the interests of all states are as equally cynical when it comes to Syria.  Turkey did its very best to get the US to implement a no-fly zone over areas of Syria being hit by Assad, while the US wouldn’t even entertain it.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE use their powerful airforces only to commit hugely destructive war crimes in Yemen, a situation they created due to their fear of the MB-affiliated Al-Islah gaining power in a post-Saleh democracy.

Syrians have always been let down by their allies, but with the US, Saudi and UAE allegedly on their side, they don’t need enemies.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.