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Fahad Nazer

Kerry’s anti-ISIS push will not be an easy sell in Riyadh

The US has to repair a damaged credibility in the eyes of Saudi Arabia, and make convincing assurances it is still a reliable partner

US Secratery of State John Kerry waits for the start of a Gulf Cooperation Council and Regional Partners meeting at King Abdulaziz International Airport’s Royal Terminal on September 11, 2014 in Jeddah (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski/POOL)

As the Obama administration’s effort to build a coalition to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State (ISIS) intensifies and widens, the US seems to have concluded that for its campaign to appear as a legitimate, international effort against a terrorist organization – and not as a continuation of what some Muslims characterize as a US “war against Islam” or an attempt to bolster the Iraqi government and the Assad regime in Syria – it will need the active participation, as opposed to the tacit support, of the one country that can claim to play a “leadership” role in both the Arab and wider Muslim worlds: Saudi Arabia.  

 

While the Saudis have made it clear that they consider ISIS to be a threat to their security and to the stability of the broader international community, it remains to be seen whether they are willing to do more than add to the humanitarian assistance they have already provided to both Syria and Iraq. Much will depend on Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Jeddah on Thursday and his ability to clearly articulate the administration’s long-term objectives in Iraq and, more importantly, in Syria. A perceived lack of a clear US strategy will make the Saudis think twice about committing to the US effort, putting the entire endeavor in jeopardy.

 

Much as in the US, the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq and its barbarism have dominated both traditional and social Saudi media over the past two months. In a recent meeting with ambassadors to the kingdom, King Abdullah raised eyebrows when he said that unless terrorists are dealt with quickly and decisively, “I am certain they will reach Europe in one month, and the US in two.” It was clear from the remarks that the king was referring to ISIS. A few days later, the most senior religious authority in the kingdom, the Grand Mufti, also appeared to be speaking about ISIS when he characterized the group as “the number one enemy of Islam.” More recently, he enjoined Muslims to “fight” to repel ISIS’ attack against them, in what could be considered a fatwa sanctioning military action against the group. Early in the summer, the Saudis busted what they described as a “vast network” of terror suspects acting as conduits between ISIS and militant groups in Yemen. However, Riyadh’s badly-damaged relations with Baghdad and its long-standing support of the Syrian opposition means that the Saudis will likely press Secretary Kerry on what the US envisions happening in both Iraq and Syria once ISIS is destroyed.

 

The Saudis have repeatedly criticized the US for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing that the toppling of Saddam Hussein handed the country to Iran on a “silver platter.” They never trusted Nouri al-Maliki, considering him nothing more than Iran’s representative in Iraq. They also largely blame Maliki’s sectarianism for creating the fertile ground in which ISIS was able to flourish, as it capitalized on widespread Sunni discontent. For his part, Maliki accused Saudi Arabia of supporting ISIS and blamed it for much of the sectarian violence that was threatening to tear apart the social fabric of the country. The formation of a new Iraqi government under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi could potentially usher in a new, more cooperative chapter in Saudi-Iraqi relations, but the Saudis will likely tell Kerry that to ensure that ISIS does not regroup, the legitimate grievances of the Sunni minority there must be addressed. Given the long years of tense relations between the two countries, however, it is unlikely that the Saudis will play a significant role in the aerial campaign against ISIS strongholds in western and central Iraq.

 

An even bigger challenge for Secretary Kerry will be articulating a clear US vision for Syria. Much like their view of the violence in Iraq, the Saudis do not believe that ISIS’ presence in Syria can be eliminated without ending the civil war there. To them, that cannot be accomplished as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

 

Not only has Saudi Arabia publicly accused Assad of conducing a “genocide” against the Sunni majority in Syria, it has also been one of the biggest supporters of the more moderate elements of the opposition. As such, US reluctance to provide military support to the Syrian opposition has been a major point of contention with the Saudis. Unlike some countries in the West – or some corners in Washington – the Saudis cannot see themselves turning a new page with a “rehabilitated” Assad. He has become a reviled figure across much of the Muslim world and any intimation that the Saudis are entertaining reversing course on Syria would be politically costly. As far as they are concerned, both ISIS and Assad have to go. 

 

Any US military strikes against ISIS strongholds in Syria that could potentially strengthen Assad’s grip on power will be a very tough sell in Riyadh. The US will have to commit to a significant increase in support for the Syrian opposition and renew its commitment to Assad’s departure if it is to garner full Saudi support.

 

Just before President Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday night, news reports surfaced indicating that the Saudis have agreed to host a US training program for Syrian opposition fighters. It is not entirely clear whether the US requested this or if the Saudis did, but in either case, assuming the report is accurate, such a move is very uncharacteristic of the Saudis, whose preference has often been for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Earlier in the day, the White House issued a readout of a phone conversation President Obama had with Saudi Kind Abdullah. In addition to the standard language about strengthening the “strategic partnership,” the release also included the following: “Both leaders agreed that a stronger Syrian opposition is essential to confronting extremists like ISIL as well as the Assad regime, which has lost all legitimacy.”

 

Secretary Kerry will attend a Saudi-sponsored meeting in Jeddah on Thursday that will focus on the threat posed by ISIS and that will also include high-level representatives from other regional actors, including Iraq. 

 

In addition to the difficult tasks above, Kerry will also have to overcome and perhaps recast the Obama administration’s tarnished reputation in Riyadh. He has to convince the Saudis that the US is a determined, trustworthy and reliable partner that shares Riyadh’s main interests in the region. That may be the toughest challenge of all.

 

Fahad Nazer is a political analyst with JTG, Inc and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. He tweets @fanazer

A perceived lack of a clear US strategy will make the Saudis think twice about committing to the US effort. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski/POOL)

The Saudis have repeatedly criticized the US for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing that the toppling of Saddam Hussein handed the country to Iran on a 'silver platter.'”