Saudi Arabia and the ‘Islamic Army’ in Syria: What’s New, What’s Not?

Syria watchers will know of the recent setting up of an “Islamic Army” in the south Syria/Damascus region and its alleged sponsorship by Saudi Arabia. This came shortly after a declaration by 11 Syrian rebel groups, which cut right across the spectrum of established rebel coalitions, rejecting the authority of the exile-based opposition leadership, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and the defection of one Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade, consisting of some 700 troops, in eastern Syria to Jabhat al-Nusra, the more “moderate” wing of Al-Qaida in Syria.

All these events took place after the launch of the current US-Russian deal with the Assad regime over its chemical weapons, the abandonment of the brief US threat to launch “punishment strikes” on Syria, the more or less complete abandonment of even the fiction of US and western support to the FSA, and the renewed momentum, sponsored by the US and Russia, for a Geneva peace conference involving Syrian regime and opposition to attempt to find a “political solution.”

The background to all these events would require a substantial analysis (which readers can expect to see here soon), but for the moment, the rash of articles about this new Saudi strategy, and the more prominent role of Saudi Arabia now as it publicly feuds with Washington, requires some commentary.

When an article on this new “Islamic Army” and Saudi plans to spend “millions” on supporting it (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/07/syria-crisis-saudi-arabia-spend-millions-new-rebel-force) was recently sent to a left-wing discussion list I participate in, one reader posted back the comment:

“Well, that cinches it. I mean, how could it NOT be a “revolution” if it’s the child of the progressive Saudi Arabian state?”

Now of course it would be quite easy to leave one simple sarcastic comment from one poster aside. But given the prominence of this issue, and the prevalence of the point of view this poster was implying among a wide section of the left, I am using it here as a catalyst to make some points about this issue.

Let’s first see what’s wrong with, or what implications flow from, the question “how could it NOT be a “revolution” if it’s the child of the progressive Saudi Arabian state?”

1. The comment suggests it is the first time the person ever heard that Saudi Arabia (and its rival Qatar) has been backing elements of the Syrian uprising. Most know that, following the initial Saudi, Qatari and Turkish robust backing of Assad in the first few months of the uprising in 2011, by about July-August they had given up on Assad being able to quell the uprising, and the first two became the states known to be arming sections of the insurgency (and Turkey facilitating it). So if that is the issue, then, based on the logic of the statement, then it has not been a revolution since July 2011, nothing new here.

2. According to this logic, every time a state that is in any way reactionary (ie, most states in the world are capitalist) sends any military aid to any movement (which they often do for their own reasons in order to try to subvert it and try to bend it in their direction, without this meaning they are successful), no matter how else we judge that movement, such a movement ceases to be a revolution, a liberation movement, or anything progressive whatsoever. I won’t provide a list; those wedded to this logic can do their own research and cross out all the movements they previously had any sympathy for.

3. What is “it” in the statement? The article talks about Saudi backing of one particular formation, the new “Islamic Army.” This formation is heavily dominated by one largish mainstream Islamist militia (Liwa al-Islam) and lots of tiny satellite militias already around it. Liwa al-Islam is a major group in the Damascus/south Syria region, where it has worked well with the secular FSA forces which are strong in the south. It is one of the four large components of the moderate-Islamist/semi-Islamist Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF, consisting of these four large groups and about 20 minor groups), which itself is one of the four major blocs of Syrian resistance, the other three being the secular/FSA/Supreme Military Command (SMC) bloc, the hard-line, national-jihadist Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), and the global-jihadist groups associated with Al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Thus, since the criteria for not being a revolution is Saudi support, the article only proves that one component of one main resistance bloc is not part of a revolution.

4. Since this statement of apparent surprise that Saudi Arabia, which everyone else knows has been sending arms for 2 years, is sending arms, can it be thus understood that we can abandon all the outright nonsense and lies that so many leftists have casually made over the last 2 years about US arming of the rebels? Since there has been zero evidence for US arming, but lots of evidence for Saudi arming, but even the latter is a surprise? OK, this at least is progress, now finally some understand that the US (and UK, France etc) have never sent even a bullet to the anti-Assad resistance.

5. Maybe we can take that one step further. Since the new Saudi strategy is part of its angry conflict with the US over the latter’s abandonment of its imaginary war threat, its overture to Tehran and its deal with Russia and Assad over the chemical issue, as well as months of Saudi frustration over the US attempting to block the Saudis from even aiding the secular SMC/FSA (see below), and indeed the Saudis turned down a UN role protesting both US abandonment of the anti-Assad struggle and unconditional US support for Israel, perhaps, based on the so-called “anti-imperialist” line, should we now welcome Saudi Arabia as part of the “anti-imperialist” agenda? Oh, hell, that makes things too complicated for the “anti-imperialists,” let’s leave that one for a while.

6. Since the article makes clear that a very major concern of the Saudis is the growth of influence of their arch-enemy within the Islamist terrain, Al-Qaida, and that part of their swing to backing a major mainstream Islamist movement (after trying for a year to adopt what they thought was the US line of support for the SMC, only to find out the US was only joking), is precisely to try to reduce support for Al-Qaida, or if necessary confront it, can we now abandon the all the nonsense that so many leftists have casually dropped over the last 2 years about Saudi backing for Al-Qaida (including the witless repetition of the fantasy that the Saudis not only armed Al-Qaida with small arms but with chemical weapons, via some clumsy unknowing FSAers in tunnels)?

7. Just on that though, since all the left has continually told us that Al-Qaida is the worst enemy of humanity (in Syria at least, if not in Iraq or anywhere else), does this Saudi strategy to confront Al Qaida mean that the Saudis are now progressive? Oh, hang on, but Al-Qaida is a lot more consistently anti-imperialist than the Saudis have ever been, even in their current rage, or than the Assad regime has ever been, so does that make Al-Qaida the most progressive thing in Syria? Oh, no, having an “anti-imperialist” line becomes awfully complicated, doesn’t it?

Here’s some other things. The article states:

“I don’t see it producing any dramatic change yet. It’s a political step. These new rebel formations seem to be relabelling themselves and creating new leadership structures. It’s part of a quite parochial political game – and above all a competition for resources.”

A competition for resources, precisely. You see, the fact that the West, with its alleged preference for secular rebels, or “moderates,” whatever the US may mean by that, has never sent them a gun; and even in terms of other supplies, the US has only sent a few flak jaks, binoculars, some ancient radios, and some ready-meals (which, according to FSA Aleppo Colonel, Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, who just quit due to the West’s refusal to supply anything, his men refused to eat, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24858520); this does mean the rebels, outgunned by a regime with a massive array of heavy weaponry which is continually supplied and refurbished by “peaceful” Russia and Iran, do need to look around.

Now when the rebels get too close to Al-Qaida, or a least try to avoid confronting them and opening a second front, since Al-Qaida has constant supplies via its Iraqi Al-Qaida parent, and the FSA prefers Al-Qaida’s arms to be used against the regime if possible, then the VERY, VERY secular and VERY, VERY principled western left can denounce the FSA as “jihadists” and have an excuse to not support them and denounce them as the same as the regime (or worse).

But then when the FSA is anyway forced to confront Al-Qaida all over Syria, as it has been for at least the last 6 months, not because it wanted to, and not because it listened to the Americans who demanded that they do so, but rather because Al-Qaida attacked the FSA from the back while they were busy fighting the regime, or because the FSA simply stuck up for local people resisting Al-Qaida’s imposition of religious repression, and so therefore some of these outgunned FSAers, fighting on two fronts, expressed some naïve but understandable sympathy for a western intervention, or even those who didn’t but merely demanded western arms, well then the VERY, VERY anti-imperialist and VERY, VERY principled western left can denounce the FSA as “tools for imperialism” (while still not even mentioning their fight against the jihadists – indeed, the “left,” in its own fantasy world with no need for reality, can even denounce them as tools of both imperialism and the jihadists at the same time, because it is so much easier to be a leftist in the west with a computer than someone fighting an extremely murderous dictatorship and a murderous group of jihadists at the same time).

But so then, since the West gives them nothing at all, and the jihadists open another front against them, the secular SMC/FSA got arms from Saudi Arabia. Not much, but a little better than nothing. So then the VERY, VERY etc western leftists can denounce them as tools of the Saudi monarchy.

And now that a mainstream Islamist movement, a homegrown movement, cooperative with the secular FSA, and hostile to Al-Qaida, is getting Saudi backing, well that’s all you need to know about them, isn’t it? Obviously they are just theocratic tools of the Saudi theocracy. I reckon an organisation like “Jihad Watch” could probably employ some of these kinds of leftists.

Never mind that when the US was briefly jiving about “punishment strikes” on Syria after Assad’s chemical apocalypse, Saudi Arabia was strongly supporting the proposed attack, indeed is still angry it did not occur, whereas Liwa al-Islam, like all the Islamist and lots of the secular fighters, opposed it, even though they are fighters in the very suburbs that were attacked by chemicals. Liwa a-Islam released a statement that said in part:

“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? … … The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/09/05/waiting_for_the_tomahawks_syrian_rebels_us_strikes).

So that doesn’t make Liwa al-Islam sound much like a bunch of Saudi puppets, let alone Saudi creation. What does the statement mean by “its crew” that the US has been preparing for months”? Probably some of the people in the US/Saudi centre of operations in Jordan – for months the US has been training a small elite force there, in case they need someone to do their bidding at some stage; a small elite group precisely because the US does not support or trust any wing of the actual FSA fighting on the ground. The Saudis were helping the US train this group; Liwa al-Islam denounces them as American puppets out to steal the revolution from under the feet of the people. Once again, not exactly Saudi puppets. Rather, they are a genuine part of the Syrian revolution, a genuine part of the Syrian people, whose non-jihadist “Islam” represents the more traditionalist nature of much of the peasant and working class population of the vast Damascus suburbs, the base of the revolution, those left outside the “secular” bourgeois-nationalist program of the Baath regime, especially in its neo-liberal phase.

But to the simple-Simon wing of “the left”, I assume all this just makes this formation an imperialist/Saudi/al-Qaida tool. Whatever.

Incidentally, how did the Saudis arrive here? The Saudis are Sunni Islamists, yes; in fact they run the most puritanical theocratic regime on Earth. But the problem it is also a monarchy, that is it is run by, for want of a better word, a “secular” institution, not the Islamic hierarchy; the latter have control over social, educational and cultural life, not political, economic and military power; that’s the deal. As such, the Saudi regime hates the Muslim Brotherhood, not mainly because the latter’s Islam is a lot more moderate than the Saudis’, but also because this “moderation” is republican: the Brotherhood believes it can incrementally bring in “Islamic” laws via bourgeois democracy, anathema to the Saudi monarchy; it is also international in character; and in any case its is tied to their rival Qatar. On the other hand the Saudi regime also hates Al-Qaida, the global-jihadists, because it wants to replace the “apostate” monarchial tyranny with an openly clerical tyranny. Both in their own ways are therefore “revolutionary” in a certain sense, and international, and thus threaten the overthrow of the monarchy. When the Saudis instead tried backing Syrian “national-jihadists” the problem was that the latter had no qualms about working closely with the “global-jihadists” as long as they confronted the regime.

So around August 2012, the Saudis did a well-known turn towards supporting the secular SMC leadership, while also trying to bring on board other ex-Baathist defected officers in exile, and trying to get some arms to the southern secular FSA rebels inside Syria from Jordan to establish credibility and apply actual pressure on the regime. This was not out of love for the SMC/FSA secular politics, but because that is what existed, and thus out of a desire to mould these ex-Baathist officers (“power secularists” if you like, like the Mubarakist officers it supported in Egypt in their coup against the Brotherhood government) into something that could block both the Qatari-backed Brotherhood on one side, and Al-Qaida on the other, while defeating the regime allied to its Iranian regional rival, and hoping to have enough sway over the movement and via the ex-Baathist officers to subvert real democratic revolution. All of that is a big ask: it is difficult when you are the Saudis and you hate nearly everyone. But the stability of the Jordanian monarchy, threatened by both the Brotherhood (its main opposition) and jihadists, became paramount.

The Saudis’ quest to establish a 6000-strong “Syrian National Army” was part of this: to try to replace the SMC, which had little control over the FSA and other rebels on the ground, with a more disciplined unit incorporating other ex-Baathist officers not currently in the SMC. The idea was to be able to both establish more disciplined control over the revolutionary democratic forces at the FSA base better, while also establishing a force that could eventually confront Al-Qaida as a “Sawha” (“Awakening”) movement, the name of the US- and Saudi-backed movement to arm Iraqi Sunni forces to defeat Al-Qaida in Iraq in 2005-6. The importance the Saudis attach precisely to fighting against Al-Qaida in Syria, despite much western left fantasy, is also made very clear in the article.

The US is also in favour of such a “Sawha” movement, but with several differences. First, the US has been demanding for a long time that the FSA launch a preemptive war on Al-Qaida (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/americas-hidden-agenda-in-syrias-war), to open a second front: the US aim, I believe, in making such a suicidal demand on the FSA, goes beyond a “Sawha”: the US aims for the democratic and jihadist forces to destroy each other. Thus the US refused to supply any arms to the SMC/FSA in the meantime. The Saudis believed you need a force with enough credibility in fighting the regime, and with some actual power, to then be a useful “sawha”; the US believes contrawise that the rebels have to establish their credibility with the US first by fighting a-Qaida before the US will give them a bone.

What this meant, remarkably, was that while the Saudis had turned “secularist” as they thought the US wanted, they found the US was only joking; despite conventional wisdom, the Saudi “theocrats” were supplying the secular SMC/FSA and the “secular” US was trying to block them. As reporter Joanna Paraszczuk explained in June:

“The US and the Saudis are involved in a multilateral effort to support the insurgency from Jordanian bases. But, according to the sources, Washington had not only failed to supply “a single rifle or bullet to the FSA in Daraa” but had actively prevented deliveries, apparently because of concerns over which factions would receive the weapons. The situation also appears to be complicated by Jordan’s fears that arms might find their way back into the Kingdom and contribute to instability there. The sources said the Saudi-backed weapons and ammunition are in warehouses in Jordan, and insurgents in Daraa and Damascus could be supplied “within hours” with anti-tank rockets and ammunition. The Saudis also have more weapons ready for airlift into Jordan, but US representatives are preventing this at the moment” (http://eaworldview.com/2013/06/23/syria-special-the-us-saudi-conflict-over-arms-to-insurgents/).

This is the background to the current US-Saudi spat, which intensified when the US formed its current alliance with Russia to basically keep Assad in power another year while he cooperates to get rid of his chemicals, in the meantime free to use all other conventional weapons of mass destruction, including the currently very popular unconventional one, starving people to death in Gaza-style sieges.

The well-known September 24 declaration by 11 rebel groups (including a number of large groups, which cut right across the main divides outlined above, even including some seculars) that they are not represented by the exile-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC), including rejection of the SNC’s acceptance of the US-Russia strategy for the Geneva peace talks, and the fact that the “soft” wing of Al-Qaida (Al-Nusra) was part of that declaration, set off alarm bells to the Saudis, indicating to them that the bulk of Islamist forces in Syria were tempted to align with their Al-Qaida arch enemy due to the flagrantly obvious betrayal of the US and the imperialist states.

Even though ISIS, the more violent wing of Al-Qaida, was not a signatory, and in fact the declaration’s opposition to “external” forces was implicitly directed against ISIS, with its Iraqi base and large body of foreign fighters and violent attacks on other rebel groups and popular forces, just as much as against the exile-based SNC; even though Al-Nusra itself hastened to declare that there was no “new alliance” at all as much of the western media suggested, but rather that it was merely a joint declaration against the SNC exile political leadership and its strategy; even though a number of large rebel groups, including Islamist groups, did not sign the declaration; it was still too much for the Saudis.

In particular, this declaration was against the main secular opposition leadership that the Saudis had spent a year trying to boost, and part of the reason was the SNC’s acceptance of the Geneva process for a “political solution” under powerful US and western pressure, while at the same time the same US and West had actively undermined the military capabilities of this very same opposition. The Saudis saw this as not just betrayal that led to boosting Al-Qaida; they also saw it, somewhat justifiably, as being laughed at in the face, all the more so when the US suddenly turned into Putin, and then opened negotiations with their Iranian rival.

This is the context in which the Saudis have now swung into support for an important mainstream Islamist bloc, although even the article notes that the Saudis still want to convince Liwa al-Islam to remain under the official authority of the SMC; the Saudis are not necessarily abandoning the SMC (which in any case Liwa al-Islam has been officially connected to via the SILF), but rather refusing to keep all their eggs in one basket. They are also trying to convince it to return to at least officially supporting the SNC: Liwa al-Islam in fact had been one of the 11 groups that signed the anti-SNC declaration together with Al-Nusra that got the Saudis so mad, another indication that it is far from a Saudi puppet; the fact that its new Islamic Army refuses membership not only to ISIS but also to Al-Nusra indicates its acceptance of this part of the Saudi line.

A longer, very detailed analysis of this and much is under preparation.

One thought on “Saudi Arabia and the ‘Islamic Army’ in Syria: What’s New, What’s Not?

  1. Just more proof that Saudi and U.S. interests in Syria are increasingly at odds as time goes on, especially as Obama and Rouhani crawl into bed together. What the Saudis are doing is pretty much what the French monarchy did with the U.S. after 1776. That the ‘left’ can’t see this is just a testament to its unshakeable, willful blindness.

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