The balance of forces inside Syria and across the region makes current United States strategy perilous.
A rare sign of progress in the intractable Syrian conflict is that Syria’s chemical weapons are being dismantled to a degree that exceeds expectations. In addition, the process underlines the willingness of the United States and Russia to work together, reflecting the shared interest of these two major proxies in a compromise solution before the extreme Islamist insurgents get too strong (see "Syria, realigning the war", 10 October 2013)
There are also indications that one of the two lesser proxies, Iran, is interested in a compromise, as Tehran continues to make overtures to Washington on the nuclear issue. The position of the other, Saudi Arabia, is more problematic but recent reports suggest that Riyadh is more actively engaged in diplomatic terms than previously.
The Saudis remain committed to advancing the collapse of Bashar al-Assad's regime and its replacement with a non-democratic successor dominated by the majority Sunni Muslims, even if this ensures that extreme Islamists have a significant role. Such an outcome would fulfil a long-standing Saudi foreign-policy goal, namely preventing the establishment of a Shi’a "crescent" from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
At the same time, the Saudi government recognises all too well that both Russia and the US want to sideline the more effective Syrian rebels. The latter are now dominating the insurgency in many parts of the country, and are (in part as a consequence) little interested in any peace negotiations; indeed some of them are intent on provoking conflict with the “moderate” rebels in order to make their hegemony over the opposition secure (see Michael R Gordon & Ben Hubbard, “U.S. official says Qaeda undermining Syrian talks”, New York Times, 22 October 2013)
There are many indications that Saudi private sources are being used to feed arms and other resources into the radical Islamist paramilitaries, though little indication that this is official policy in Riyadh. It is in this context that news of a joint US-Saudi mission to tip the balance among the rebel forces is so significant.
The Saudi project
United States marines inside Saudi Arabia have, since the early months of 2013, been developing an intensive programme to train units linked to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The courses take groups drawn from both within Syria and refugee camps in neighbouring countries, last a hundred days, and involve tactics designed to be of particular value when fighting in built-up areas (FIBUA) (see Mohammed Najib, “Training of Syrian insurgents steps up in Saudi Arabia”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 23 October 2013).
The current programme will have trained over 1,500 would-be insurgents by the time it is due to finish around the end of 2013, and it may well be followed by similar initiatives during early 2014. Its initial emphasis on the use of American weapons has been downgraded in favour of Russian and Chinese equipment, since the latter is far more likely to be available within Syria.
In essence this is a free-standing programme, though it is being applied in parallel with a decision to let the Syrian opposition’s supreme military council (SMC) - which nominally oversees the FSA - establish a headquarters across the border in northwest Jordan. The council’s chief of staff, General Salim Idris, will seek to coordinate FSA military operations. A source states:
“The job of the new command is to integrate the operative brigades in Damascus and Houran into one and support and co-ordinate military operations against the regime in southern Syria”.
This development is designed to suit Saudi as well as American interests. Many in the Saudi government want the al-Qaida-linked Islamist rebels to succeed, or at least be able to govern towns and villages in northern Syria for some years to come. Others are content for the Islamist rebels to exert major influence in the north of the country, even if that proves insufficient to sink the regime.
These varied calculations reflect the current situation inside Syria. As things stand, what the US regards as the “good” rebels are too disunited in the south - the area close to the regime's powerbase - to present a real threat, meaning that Bashar al-Assad is likely to survive for months if not years to come. The obvious answer is to allow the US marines to conduct its Saudi-based training programme to increase the rebels' effectiveness, backed by coordination with the new SMC headquarters in Jordan. The eventual result, it is hoped, will be the replacement of the regime by a strongly Sunni-ruled power-structure - albeit one that would then have to cope with the even more radical Islamists to the north.
Again, such a post-Assad Syria would be an acceptable outcome to Riyadh; and it is probably something that Washington too could live with, at least in the short term, especially as it considers the core of western-trained fighters would give it leverage in the later struggle against whatever extreme Islamist elements continued to exist.
A familiar problem with this scenario is already emerging, however - the reliability of the rebel forces being trained by the US marines. It is wholly unclear whether units trained in Saudi Arabia will remain loyal to the SMC once deployed in Syria, or indeed whether they already contain people closer in outlook to the Islamist paramilitaries.
Over the last year it has become ever more evident that the SMC-backed groups are not among the most effective of the regime's opponents. Moreover, the coalition is divided; in mid-October 2013, more than sixty units followed a group linked to the SMC by announcing that they no longer recognised its authority. It is a sign that United States efforts to train “good” rebels may yet strengthen the power of Islamist elements in Syria. The seeds of another blowback may be being planted in the sands of Saudi Arabia.