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Saudis and principal Partners in "Islamic Military Alliance" unreliable with devious agenda

Riyadh, Ankara, and other members of the U.S.-backed coalition have different priorities. Their proxy battles in Syria could go on indefinitely.

Saudi Arabia has put on quite a show. On Dec. 9 and 10, the Gulf monarchy held a major conference to assemble the Syrian rebels into a cohesive front—a welcome reprieve from the chaos in Syria and the fragmentation of the opposition. On Dec. 15, Saudi Arabia announced a new “Islamic military alliance” of 34 countries to “coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism.”

These two developments—unifying the Syrian rebels and leading the Muslim world in the fight against terrorism—were certainly meant to reaffirm Saudi Arabia’s role as a reliable U.S. ally in Syria and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, both of these initiatives fell apart before they were even underway. Not only did the Saudis exclude the Kurds—the most effective ground force fighting ISIS—from the Syrian opposition conference, they also included radical elements like Ahrar al-Sham, an ally of Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra.

The conference’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down at the start of a transition process—a total nonstarter—and the confusion over Ahrar al-Sham simultaneously signing the declaration and withdrawing from the talks reveal the lack of seriousness this conference embodied.

What of the Islamic military alliance? Just a day after its announcement, the Lebanese and Pakistani foreign ministers and the Malaysian defense minister denied their countries’ involvement in the Saudi-led coalition. The Lebanese and Pakistani governments denied even being consulted on it.

So why the dog-and-pony show? Saudi Arabia is hoping to draw attention away from the true objectives of it and its partners, Qatar and Turkey, and the support they give to the Salafist groups in Syria that contribute to the continued instability in the country.

Embroiled in a proxy war with Russia and Iran—both of whom support Assad—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have supported and armed the more radical elements of the opposition.

Most notably, these countries have backed the Army of Conquest since May of this year, which is comprised of Ahrar al-Sham and other Salafist groups. The Army of Conquest even includes Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, as one of its dominant members. (There was reporting that Nusra broke away from the Army of Conquest in late October, however this was based on contested allegations from Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership. In early December, Nusra posted a propaganda video with Army of Conquest branding.)

It was the victories of these forces in northern Syria that eventually led to Russia’s intervention and Iran’s escalation to protect the Assad regime.

While some, like Ahrar al-Sham, have made robust public relations efforts to present themselves as moderates, these groups espouse radical ideologies and carry out atrocities that make it so no minority group in Syria could, or should, trust them. Moreover, they continue to expand Syria’s ungoverned space, forming a stronghold from which they can arm and train themselves and carry out attacks both inside and outside of Syria.

Russia and Iran already fear this outcome; the United States, the West, and other countries in the Middle East should as well.

Given the fragmentation of the opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are likely aware that supporting these Salafist groups will not bring forth a stable government that is friendly to their interests. Their goals are much narrower than creating a viable state. Instead, their intervention in Syria is part-and-parcel of the larger conflict with Iran.

The evident objective is simply to create enough instability that the country is no longer an asset to Tehran but is, rather, a liability. In this regard, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already succeeding.

Turkey, on the other hand, has an entirely different interest in prolonging the Syrian Civil War. Rather than a threat from Iran, Turkey is concerned over the potential creation of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria—much like the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to which Turkey has reluctantly grown accustomed.

While a unified Syria may eventually be possible for most of its population in western, central, and southern Syria (granted, this is years away), it has become hard to believe that the northeastern Kurdish region will not break away and fall under the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Over the course of the war, Kurdish forces have made agreements and arrangements with both Assad and parts of the opposition, and in doing so, they have already carved out de facto autonomy for themselves.

Read more: will the Saudis Let Us Beat ISIS? - The Daily Beast

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