Saudis to Unify Hardline Islamist Groups in Syria

by | Oct 10, 2013


The speculations about Saudi Arabia climbing down on the regime change project in Syria in tandem with the United States’ diplomatic moves following up the Russian initiative on chemical weapons, can now be laid to rest. So indeed the animated talk in hushed tones in the regional capitals that spy chief Prince Bandar Sultan, who is piloting the Saudi project in Syria might be given the sack by King Abdullah.

After carefully weighing the options, the Saudis have apparently decided to press ahead with the project in Syria, no matter the twists and turns in the US policies. The UPI has carried a special report that Prince Bandar is being assigned to work on bringing together under Saudi control the hardline Islamist groups operating in Syria. 

The Saudis are actually fighting a proxy war in Syria aimed at containing Iranian influence. There have been reports that Prince Bandar recently visited Israel. Saudi Arabia and Israel have a congruence of interests in the containment of Iran. Recently, in his UN speech Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly referred to Israel and some unnamed Arab states working together.

The Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that there is a secret US-Russian understanding over President Assad remaining in power in Damascus predicated on the belief that he only can arrest the dangerous ascendancy of the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria. The UPI report says that the Saudi calculation is to bring these extremist groups under Riyadh’s patronage. The Saudis are adept at working with the al-Qaeda affiliates.

There have been reports that Saudi ex-military personnel have been fighting inside Syria as part of the al-Nusra Front (which Washington has named as a terrorist organization.) This new Saudi line in Syria would prima facie put Riyadh on a collision course with Washington. Put differently, it testifies to a the rapid decline of US influence on Saudi policies.

Equally, in these circumstances, the Obama administration’s capacity to influence the Syrian opposition to come to the negotiating table within the ambit of Geneva 2 suffers a setback. Russia has been pressing the US to work toward organizing the Geneva 2 meeting by mid-November but the “strategic defiance” by the Saudis will almost certainly torpedo the efforts in that direction.

The Saudis are petrified that a constructive engagement between the US and Iran may commence in a near future. Suffice to say, an aggravation of the Syrian conflict at this point suits Saudi Arabia. 

Now, what happens if the Salafist groups create another flashpoint in Syria such as through a chemical weapon attack with the intent to force the hands of the Obama administration to intervene, which of course will pit the US against Iran and derail any normalization talks between Washington and Tehran? That’s where the real danger lies. Prince Bandar is highly skilled in manipulating the Washington establishment. 

Reprinted from Indian Punchline blog.



  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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