The Saudi Arabian government has officially thrown in the towel on the hopes that the United States will take the lead in toppling the Assad regime in Syria.
The House of Saud is now training its own fighters to stabilize the situation in Syria. They envision a force of 40,000 to 50,000 Sunni fighters capable of defeating the regime of President Assad and counterbalancing Islamist rebel groups that are affiliated with al-Qaida. King Abdullah has enlisted the help of veteran foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. and former Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. More troubling, however, is the House of Saud recruiting Pakistan to train Saudi fighters.
If you recall, the covert coalition of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the CIA worked in Afghanistan in the 1980s to assist the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union. The coalition built up the rebels but failed to build a unifying political framework. This set the stage for the Taliban to fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan.
While the pros and cons have been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism and not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom’s effort as having two goals: toppling of the Assad regime, and weakening extremist groups in the country. Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition groups must be strengthened so that it could protect itself against “…these extremists who are coming from all over the place” to impose their own ideologies on Syria.
Pakistan’s role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge the Saudi line of thinking says a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades (around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters). However, Pakistan is currently battling its own Islamist hardliners, both those within their own government and outside actors. They are also unwilling to aggravate relations with Iran. The Pakistani government is not said to be greatly enthusiastic about helping Saudi Arabia at the moment.
This plan by the Saudi government was borne out of their frustration with the United States’ inactivity in Syria. As a result, Saudi Arabia has decided to press forward with its own plans to bolster anti-Assad forces. That effort relies on a network of Saudi allies in addition to Pakistan, namely Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and France.
Riyadh made the decision to move ahead with its plans after coming to the conclusion that President Barack Obama was simply not prepared to move aggressively to oust Assad. “We didn’t know if the Americans would give [support] or not, but nothing ever came through,” says a Saudi national with knowledge of the plan. “Now we know the President just didn’t want it.”
(Main photo: Syrian rebels courtesy of the AFP)