Saudi Arabia’s take on the Syrian crisis

Jamal Khashoggi

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There are many reasons behind Saudi Arabia’s resentment of the United States. This much obvious when it comes to dealing with the Syrian crisis since the U.S. simply and clearly “hides its real intentions.” Repeated American statements rejecting the regime of Bashar al-Assad completely contradicts what is happening on the ground. This is what angers the Saudis, who want a quick solution to end the crisis. Saudis reject what they see as the shameful and irresponsible U.S. position that has led to prolonging the conflict in Syria, regardless of its repercussions and expansion into other countries in the region.

The obvious contradiction in the U.S. position is highlighted in the issue of arming the opposition. While the U.S. secretly rejects the desire of its ally Saudi Arabia in raising the quality of armaments sent to Syrian rebels, and even prevents Saudi Arabia from sending some quality weapons by virtue of the sales agreements that prohibit the transfer of weapons to a third party, it did not do anything about Russia sending weapons to the Syrian regime via Iran and Iraq. The only time the U.S. interfered was to support Israel, by rejecting the transfer of S-300 air defense missile systems to Damascus. It did not even bother to prevent the participation of tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite volunteers in the war in Syria, although it is fully aware of the role and responsibilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Qasem Soleimani in the war.


I believe that Saudi Arabia is not convinced with the U.S.’s statements saying that it cannot prevent Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which are both adverse to the U.S., from entering Syria. Riyadh knows in detail the real extent of U.S. influence in Iraq, which has become the main source conveying weapons and volunteers to Syria from Iran. Israel also did not hesitate to launch attacks inside Syria and target members of Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards, thus threatening Israeli interests, without any significant reaction from the regime and its allies. If Israel can afford it, Washington can afford it too, especially as Jordan has facilitated the task and allowed Obama’s administration to use Jordanian bases to attack the regime with unmanned aircraft. According to knowledgeable sources, the U.S. refused this offer, which was reiterated several times in coordination with the Saudis.
The other paradox is that the United States fully agrees with the Saudi analysis regarding the dangers that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses to security in the region. Moreover, there is cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in fighting against this organization, which is active in Yemen among other states. However, the U.S administration is not interested in the danger al-Qaeda poses in Syria. A danger which was exacerbated with the arrival of the original version of al-Qaeda, the organization of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, that must be perceived by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey as a serious threat to their security.

Such youths are also influenced by jihadist calls that have not disappeared in Saudi Arabia, but have gone underground instead

Jamal Kashoggi

The strength of this organization in Syria lies in its ability to establish ballistic missiles bases therein. This allows their projectiles to reach all the countries of the region. By ballistic missiles, I mean suicide bombers, which the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has. The organization can send suicide bombers to any city in the region; it did so with the Kurdistan Regional Government when it sent suicide bombers who blew themselves and their cars up in six locations in the capital Irbil, to warn the city of supporting the Kurds in northern Syria who are preventing al-Qaeda from gaining control over the entire region.

The bombings in Irbil traumatized the countries in the region since that city was supposedly safe and enjoyed security, but experts say that stopping a surface-to-surface missile with a patriot network is easier than stopping a suicide bomber who crosses the border alone while his explosives traveling separately with someone else. Once united, it would be almost impossible to stop him from executing his suicidal operation.

Driven by anger

The presence of ISIS in northern Syria, and its welcoming of foreign fighters, will make it attractive to young Saudis driven by anger as a result of violations taking place in the country. Such youths are also influenced by jihadist calls that have not disappeared in Saudi Arabia, but have gone underground instead. The estimations that the number of Saudi Mujahedeen in Syria is around four thousand may be exaggerated, similar to what happened in Afghanistan and Bosnia where numbers were overstated too. However, even if the number was a quarter of what is estimated, it is still a big number that might renew al-Qaeda’s activities in Saudi Arabia, a country that felt relieved when security authorities were able to reduce al-Qaeda activity within its borders, a campaign which led al-Qaeda to stop acting in the kingdom altogether. According to an expert on the situation there, who works with the United Nations, this is what led to the complete suspension of al-Qaeda’s operations in Saudi Arabia. However, there is a distressing issue: Saudis in Syria hide their real number and avoid being shown by media outlets on purpose. This is unlike al-Qaeda, which posts propaganda videos on YouTube and spreads their “heroic” stories to recruit others. The expert adds: “You may see many videos about for the Chechens or the Libyans, but their number is much smaller than the Saudis, whom I believe are the third largest group after the Jordanian and Palestinian fighters in Syria ... staying away from the media is worrying.”

Hiding from the authorities

Maybe this is because they know that fighting in Syria is against the orders of their country, but they certainly also know that Saudi security forces know well who went to fight in Syria and will arrest them upon their return.

Al-Qaeda is aware of that and thus it exploits this fact to use them as an abundant source of back up for recruitment and covert activities in Syria. Those who know al-Qaeda, know that there is always some stages after Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

All of these Saudi concerns will only fade away when the Syrian crisis ends, especially since the crisis is now providing a suitable ground for al-Qaeda and Iran to extend their influence, each in its own way and according to its own objectives, and both are against Saudi Arabia. Recent leaks in American newspapers revealed that the Obama administration is not interested in ending the crisis. Actually, it seems to want to extend the crisis; this will surely deepen the gap between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

This painful surprise was reported in the New York Times last Wednesday. The White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told members of Congress: “The situation in Syria can keep Iran busy for many years,” and then added: “The fighting in Syria between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda may be in the interest of the United States.”

His statement recalls imperialist attitudes that prevailed in the 1950s when the interests of arms dealers and oil companies used to determine U.S. foreign policy, without taking into account the rights and interests of the people.

We are not angels, but we cannot be this evil. The Syrians and the entire region will pay for such a policy, and the war between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah will expand and drag in the region’s countries and armies.

The health care reform program in the United States might be more important to U.S. President Obama than the Syrian hell – as described by Obama himself – but Syria can be Saudi Arabia’s paradise or hell. So let us do something, even if we are to act alone, regardless of what we have to sacrifice today. Because what we may have to sacrifice today is surely much less than what we will be sacrificing in three or four years.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 26, 2013.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

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