On her show last night, Rachel Maddow highlighted a piece by Steve Clemons claiming that the rise of ISIS in Syria—and, more recently, in Iraq—has been largely due to financial and arms assistance from Saudi Arabia:
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the “moderate” armed opposition in the country, receives a lot of attention. But two of the most successful factions fighting Assad’s forces are Islamist extremist groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)….Qatar’s military and economic largesse has made its way to Jabhat al-Nusra….But ISIS is another matter. As one senior Qatari official stated, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.”
….The United States, France, and Turkey have long sought to support the weak and disorganized FSA, and to secure commitments from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to do the same….In February, the Saudi government appeared to finally be endorsing this strategy.
….The worry at the time, punctuated by a February meeting between U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the intelligence chiefs of Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, and others in the region, was that ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra had emerged as the preeminent rebel forces in Syria. The governments who took part reportedly committed to cut off ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and support the FSA instead. But while official support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia appears to have dried up, non-governmental military and financial support may still be flowing from these countries to Islamist groups.
Clemons’ piece is vaguely sourced, and Saudi Arabia has strongly denied accusations that it has supported ISIS. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly commonly held view, and it certainly demonstrates the dangers of trying to pick sides in Middle East conflicts. The US may have been doing its best to support the FSA, but that doesn’t mean our allies are doing the same. Unfortunately, there are inherent limits to just how precisely you can pinpoint aid in conflicts like this, and that means the possibility of blowback is never far away. That sure seems to have been the case here.