President Barack Obama delivers remarks during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)
Official Washington was caught off-guard this week when the radicalization of the Syrian rebels went from being an obscured reality to an undeniable truth. Syria's most powerful rebel forces renounced the "moderate" exiles, who have been nurtured by the West, and embraced an Islamic extremist organization affiliated with al-Qaeda.
This development now confronts the West with a set of even grimmer choices: help the radical jihadists win the war and turn Syria into a Taliban-style homeland for terrorism in the center of the Middle East; accept an indefinite continuation of the bloody civil war hoping that no one wins as the bodies pile up; or work with the Assad regime and the weakened "moderates" to bring about some kind of political reform that might placate the estranged Sunni majority while isolating the extreme Islamists.
But if President Barack Obama were to pick the negotiation option, he would not only face resistance across Official Washington; his choice also would put him at odds with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have formed a de facto alliance in pursuit of joint regional goals, including the ouster of Assad. If the last option seems to you to be the least worst, you would find yourself in a distinct minority inside Official Washington, where politicians and pundits still prefer to swagger about, issuing ultimatums demanding the unconditional removal of President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has committed many atrocities in a civil war where brutality is common on both sides.
Saudi Arabia and its neighboring oil sheikdoms have spearheaded the arming and funding of the radical jihadists who are now flooding into Syria from across the Arab world and from other Muslim areas such as Chechnya in Russia. But Israel has quietly supported this effort, too, in political and diplomatic circles.
Though the Saudi monarchy has long presented itself as a "moderate" Arab state and friend of the United States, it is, in reality, an extremist government that imposes the hard-line Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam on its people. Through its skillful intelligence service, Saudi Arabia also has financed Sunni extremists for decades, including Osama bin Laden and other radicals who formed al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
Bin Laden may have become an expatriate Saudi before the 9/11 attacks, but alleged Saudi financing for al-Qaeda has remained a national security mystery in the United States, with the 9/11 Commission's conclusions on this sensitive topic the only section redacted in its final report.
More recently, Saudi intelligence -- now under Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the savvy former ambassador to the United States -- has been pressing for the military defeat of Assad as a way to deal a severe blow to Saudi Arabia's chief regional rival, Iran. The Saudis see themselves as the leader of Sunni Islam, seeking to counter the influence of Iran's Shiite Islam.
Assad, who comes from the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, is viewed as a crucial link in the Shiite crescent reaching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah enclaves of Lebanon. The Saudis consider knocking out Assad's regime as central to their regional strategy of expanding Sunni dominance of the region. They also recognize that Sunni jihadists, who often employ terrorist tactics, are among the most effective fighters and thus deserve Saudi backing.
Saudi Arabia's oust-Assad strategy even brought Prince Bandar into a verbal confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July when, according to leaked accounts of the meeting, Bandar implicitly admitted Saudi control of Chechen radicals who have committed widespread acts of terrorism in Russia and who are considered a potential threat to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Should Cruise Missiles Target Saudis?"]
But the Saudis are not alone in their eagerness to see Islamic jihadists overthrow Assad's regime in Damascus. Israeli leaders, too, have expressed a preference for the jihadist "bad guys" to take control Syria if that's the only way to remove Assad.
Last week, Israel's Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel "always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran." Echoing the Saudi concern about the Shiite crescent, Oren said, "The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc." [See Consortiumnews.com's "Israel Sides with Syrian Jihadists."]
So, Tuesday's pronouncement that the dominant Syrian rebel forces want Shariah law and are now in league with an al-Qaeda affiliate puts the Obama administration in the difficult predicament of either pursuing a course that could lead to radical Sunni Islamists establishing a Taliban-style state in the center of the Middle East or bucking the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
To work toward a political settlement between Assad's regime and the remaining Sunni "moderates" would require telling the Israelis to back off their anti-Assad lobbying and warning the Saudis about possible retaliation if they persist in arming al-Qaeda-style jihadists in Syria (and Islamic terrorists generally).
Only by getting the Saudis and their fellow oil sheikdoms to cut off the flow of arms and money to the jihadists in Syria could a negotiated end to the civil war even be remotely possible.
But the Saudis and the Israelis -- operating with what I'm told is now an intelligence-level collaboration on their mutual interests which also include support for the new Egyptian military regime -- feel they have the clout to counter any pressure from the big powers of the United States and Russia. The Saudis wield enormous economic power both over energy and finance, while the Israelis have unmatched skills at propaganda and politics.