The media coverage of the recent Camp David summit between US President Barack Obama and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has focused largely on Obama’s success in getting the GCC states to go along with the negotiation of a nuclear agreement with Iran.
But the much more important story of the summit is Obama’s decision not to confront Saudi Arabia and Qatar about their financing of an Al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria that has made the most dramatic gains in the jihadist war against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
For months the conflict between the policies of the Obama administration and those of Saudi Arabia and Qatar towards the war in Syria has been sharpening. US policy has been to arm and train several thousand rebels to fight only against Islamic State (IS) forces.
The Saudis and Qataris, meanwhile, have embarked on a new initiative with Turkey to beef up the capability of Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front), the official Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and its jihadist allies by creating a new military coalition in Idlib province to capture territory from the Al-Assad regime.
A source in the Saudi royal family involved in defence and security matters confirmed for this article the existence of the new military coalition and the Saudi and Qatari assistance to it. The source said that the coalition, called the “Army of Conquest,” is a temporary one in the Idlib region, where Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham represent 90 per cent of the troops.
The Saudis and Qataris are to provide funding for 40 per cent of the coalition’s needs, according to the source, while the coalition itself takes care of the remainder, mainly by capturing material.
Ahrar Al-Sham is also believed to be heavily influenced, if not controlled, by Al-Qaeda. A founding member and senior official of Ahrar Al-Sham, Mohamed Bahaiah, has revealed in social media posts associated with the organisation that he is a senior Al-Qaeda operative. Both Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham have cut their ties with IS, although Ahrar Al-Sham has fought alongside it in the past.
The new coalition surprised foreign observers by capturing the provincial capital of Idlib on 28 March, the most important development in the Syrian war since the capture of Raqqa by IS in May 2013.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, has called the coalition’s seizure of Idlib “a victory for Al-Qaeda in Syria” and predicted that many in the global jihadist community would view it as a vindication of Al-Qaeda’s grand strategy.
In the light of these facts, one might expect the Saudi role in creating the new Al-Nusra-dominated force to provoke a confrontation of some sort at the summit. In a column last October, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote about the Obama administration’s irritation over a 2013 operation by Turkey, Qatar and the UAE that delivered arms to Syrian groups that ended up in the hands of Jabhat Al-Nusra and Islamic State.
The column appeared on the same day that US Vice President Joe Biden, answering a student’s question at Harvard University, said that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Al-Assad.”
The result, he said, was that “the people who were being supplied were Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” Biden later apologised to Turkey and the UAE for “any implication” that the supply of Al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda had been intentional.
Now the Saudi and Qatari governments are aiding the Al-Nusra Front and its fellow Al-Qaeda front, Ahrar Al-Sham, quite deliberately, and the policy has seriously increased the threat of an Al-Qaeda seizure of power in Syria, even though Al-Qaeda has, at least for now, been openly opposing IS.
But the US administration’s foreign policy priorities have shifted dramatically. Defending the nuclear agreement being negotiated with Iran from domestic or foreign attack has become the overwhelmingly primary political consideration in relations with the Saudis.
When Obama spoke by telephone with King Salman on 2 April, five days after the fall of Idlib to the Al-Nusra Front, there was no hint of dissatisfaction with the Saudi role in bankrolling the Al-Qaeda spin-off. Instead Obama was reported by the White House to have focused solely on Iran’s “destabilising activities in the region” and the assurance that the nuclear negotiations with Iran “would not lessen US concern” about those activities.
In a column on 12 May, just before the Camp David summit, Ignatius described the new arrangement under which Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had begun supporting Al-Nusra as leading to major military gains by the Army of Conquest and tipping the balance in the Syria war against the Al-Assad regime.
He referred to the fact that the Saudi-Qatari initiative is helping Al-Qaeda in Syria as a “tricky problem,” but suggested that it was manageable because it was “likely that in the coming days a Jabhat Al-Nusra faction will split publicly from Al-Qaeda and join the Army of Conquest.”
The GCC states came to the Camp David summit hoping that they could get the Obama administration to support a “no-fly zone” on the Syria-Turkey border, according to diplomatic sources in Washington. But Obama was holding out for a different deal. Immediately after the summit, Ignatius reported that both sides had got what they wanted.
The Saudis and their GCC allies received “assurances of American willingness to challenge Iranian meddling in the region,” while Obama had got the official endorsement of the GCC for the nuclear deal.
As part of the bargain reached at the summit, the Obama administration agreed, in effect, to accept that Saudi Arabia and Qatar will continue to finance Al-Nusra’s new military power. The issue was covered in a very long annex to the joint statement, which said that “GCC member states decided to intensify efforts to combat extremist groups in Syria, notably by shutting down private financial flows or any form or assistance to ISIL/DAESH (IS), Al-Nusra Front, and other violent extremist groups.”
However, in reality Obama reached a different understanding with Riyadh and Doha on the issue. As Ignatius formulated the US position at the summit, “Obama and other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients, so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from IS or Al-Qaeda.”
The Saudis are not backing away from their Syria policy. The Saudi royal family source said the reason for the assistance to the Al-Nusra-dominated coalition is “because there are no other options for Riyadh.”
The Saudis had tried to assist the Free Syrian Army in the past, he said, but that choice had “failed miserably.” And since Saudi Arabia “could never support IS,” which he described as “a main enemy,” this is “an arrangement by necessity.”
Obama is well aware that the fall of the Al-Assad regime is likely to result in a terrorist regime in Syria. His decision to tolerate, at least for now, Saudi and Qatari policies that make that outcome far more likely appears to reflect little more than a personal political interest.
But the longer-term consequences and eventual political blowback from that decision could be enormous, which suggests that Obama will have to revisit the issue soon.
The writer is the winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism and author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.