Saudi Arabia: Keep Your Hands Off Syria

On August 18, after six months of the Assad regime slaughtering its people, President Obama finally called on Bashar al-Assad to step down.

We hope Obama and his team are prepared to face the task of encouraging Assad’s fall from power. Since they are understandably reluctant to engage Assad militarily, it seems likely the U.S. will resort to clandestine U.S. and EU operations, tough sanctions, support for the Syrian opposition, and cooperation with some of Syria’s wannabe kingmakers.

The one kingmaker Americans should be most concerned about: Saudi Arabia.

WikiLeaks disclosed the fact that in 2006 the U.S. State Department secretly funded a Syrian TV station operated by people who claimed to be former members of the Muslim Brotherhood. These are not the sort of people we should want in key positions in post-Assad Syria, but they are very much the sort that the Saudis favor.  And the Saudis have been very successful over the years in finding American officials to agree with them.

Some U.S. government employees are delighted to reward Saudi peddling and influence, and this is not just a matter of political agreement or the usual diplomatic desire for good relations. These employees have learned that if they behave properly in office they may land lucrative contracts upon retirement, or in the case of appointed high-powered officials and advisors, immediately following elections. Some of these are able to affect United States policy concerning Syria. Because of this, the Syrian dissident community is concerned about Saudi influence and U.S. State Department direction: the case of the TV station is established precedence that they may fund the wrong Syrian opposition.

The Saudi rulers do not want a secular, democratic Syria, which might inspire like-minded Saudis to demand similar change in their country. The Saudis would likely prefer a chaotic and vulnerable polity in my native country so that they and their friends in Washington can insist democracy has failed in the Middle East, and that a more theocratic state will be more stable and more in keeping with local traditions. Indeed, many American experts and policymakers routinely say such things.