Saudi Arabia's Shadow War

The Kingdom is turning to Pakistan to train Syria’s rebels. It’s a partnership that once went very wrong in Afghanistan. Will history repeat itself?

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia, having largely abandoned hope that the United States will spearhead international efforts to topple the Assad regime, is embarking on a major new effort to train Syrian rebel forces. And according to three sources with knowledge of the program, Riyadh has enlisted the help of Pakistani instructors to do it.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with the CIA, also supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviet-backed government during the 1980s. That collaboration contains a cautionary note for the current day: The fractured Afghan rebels were unable to govern after the old regime fell, paving the way for chaos and the rise of the Taliban. Some of the insurgents, meanwhile, transformed into al Qaeda and eventually turned their weapons against their former patrons.

While the risk of blowback has been discussed in Riyadh, Saudis with knowledge of the training program describe it as an antidote to extremism, not a potential cause of it. They have described the kingdom's effort as having two goals -- toppling the Assad regime, and weakening al Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Prince Turki, the former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Washington, said in a recent interview that the mainstream opposition must be strengthened so that it could protect itself "these extremists who are coming from all over the place" to impose their own ideologies on Syria.

The ramped up Saudi effort has been spurred by the kingdom's disillusionment with the United States. A Saudi insider with knowledge of the program described how Riyadh had determined to move ahead with its plans after coming to the conclusion that President Barack Obama was simply not prepared to move aggressively to oust Assad. "We didn't know if the Americans would give [support] or not, but nothing ever came through," the source said. "Now we know the president just didn't want it."

Pakistan's role is so far relatively small, though another source with knowledge of Saudi thinking said that a plan was currently being debated to give Pakistan responsibility for training two rebel brigades, or around 5,000 to 10,000 fighters. Carnegie Middle East Center fellow Yezid Sayigh first noted the use of Pakistani instructors, writing that the Saudis were planning to build a Syrian rebel army of roughly 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers.

"The only way Assad will think about giving up power is if he's faced with the threat of a credible, armed force," said the Saudi insider.

A State Department official declined to comment on the Saudi training program.

Saudi Arabia's decision to move forward with training the Syrian rebels independent of the United States is the latest sign of a split between the two longtime allies. In Syria, Saudi officials were aggrieved by Washington's decision to cancel a strike on the Assad regime in reprisal for its chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburbs this summer. A top Saudi official told the Washington Post that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan was unaware of the cancelation of the strike. "We found about it from CNN," he said.

As a result, Saudi Arabia has given up on hopes that the United States would spearhead efforts to topple Assad and decided to press forward with its own plans to bolster rebel forces. That effort relies on a network of Saudi allies in addition to Pakistan, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and France.

As Sayigh laid out in his Carnegie paper, Saudi Arabia is attempting to build "a new national army" for the rebels -- a force with an "avowedly Sunni ideology" that could seize influence from mainstream Syrian opposition groups. In addition to its training program in Jordan, Saudi Arabia also helped organize the unification of roughly 50 rebel brigades into "the Army of Islam" under the leadership of Zahran Alloush, a Salafist commander whose father is a cleric based in the kingdom.

Given the increased Islamization of rebel forces on the ground, analysts say, it only makes sense that Saudi Arabia would throw its support behind Salafist groups. These militias "happen to be the most strategically powerful organizations on the ground," said Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. "If Saudi Arabia does indeed follow such a strategy... it could well stand to become a major power player in the conflict."

In calling on Pakistan to assist in toppling Assad, Saudi Arabia can draw on its deep alliance with Islamabad. The two countries have long shared defense ties: Saudi Arabia has given more aid to Pakistani than to any non-Arab country, according to former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, and also allegedly helped fund Islamabad's nuclear program. In return, Pakistan based troops in Saudi Arabia multiple times over three decades to protect the royals' grip on power.

The current Pakistani government, in particular, is closely tied to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power in 1999 by a military coup - the Saudis allegedly brokered a deal that kept him from prison. Sharif would spend the next seven years in exile, mainly in Saudi Arabia. "For the Saudis, Sharif is a key partner in a key allied state," said Arif Rafiq, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

But despite close collaboration in the past, Saudi Arabia may find its old allies chafing at the sheer scope of its ambitions in Syria. One Pakistani source with close ties to military circles confirmed that Saudi Arabia had requested assistance on Syria over the summer -- but argued that Pakistani capabilities and interests were not conducive to a sweeping effort to train the rebels.

Pakistan is already grappling with its own sectarian bloodshed and must mind its relationship with Iran, while its foreign policy is focused on negotiations with the Taliban over the future of Afghanistan and its longtime rivalry with India. "They have their hands full," the source said. "And even if they want to, I don't think they'll be able to give much concrete help."

Jordan is also reportedly leery about fielding a large Syrian rebel army on its soil. The ambitious Saudi plan would require a level of support from Amman "that is opposed within the security and military establishment and is unlikely to be implemented," according to Sayigh.

As the Saudis expand their effort to topple Assad, analysts say the central challenge is not to inflict tactical losses on the Syrian army, but to organize a coherent force that can coordinate its actions across the country. In other words, if Riyadh hopes to succeed where others have failed, it needs to get the politics right -- convincing the fragmented rebel groups, and their squabbling foreign patrons, to work together in pursuit of a shared goal.

It's easier said than done. "The biggest problem facing the Saudis now is the same one facing the U.S., France, and anyone else interested in helping the rebels: the fragmentation of the rebels into groups fighting each other for local and regional dominance rather than cooperating to overthrow Assad," said David Ottaway, a scholar at the Wilson Center who wrote a biography of Prince Bandar. "Could the Saudis force [the rebel groups] to cooperate? I have my doubts."



Istanbul's Big Dig

Is there a dark side to Turkey's glittering array of multi-billion-dollar massive infrastructure projects?

ISTANBUL — For her 90th birthday, which she celebrated on Tuesday, Turkey received a new train set. And what a train set it is. Istanbul's Marmaray tunnel, launched last week on the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, is the world's first underwater intercontinental rail link. It's also the deepest tunnel of its kind, with its nearly one mile of tube laying more than 200 feet below sea level, on the bed of the Bosporus Strait. Construction began in 2004 but suffered numerous delays after workers stumbled onto the remains of an ancient Byzantine harbor in 2005.

So far, only three of the system's stops are operational -- two on Istanbul's European side and one in Asia. By 2015, however, more than 30 existing stations will have been integrated into the line, stretching its length to almost 50 miles, and bringing the project's total cost to roughly $4.5 billion. Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said that once the Marmaray line is in full swing, trains will zoom between continents carrying up to 1.5 million passengers per day.

"Whether they like us or not, whether they vote for us or not," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at last week's opening ceremony, "all of my brothers in Istanbul and Turkey ought to feel proud of this project."

Marmaray is bound to be one of Erdogan's most popular projects. Istanbul's population, now estimated at nearly 15 million, has grown by hundreds of thousands per year, the city itself having spread in every direction possible, but its rail network has lagged behind miserably. As a result, Istanbul is choking on some of the planet's worst traffic.

According to a recent study by TomTom, a maker of car navigation systems, local drivers experience an average of 85 stop-starts every day, more than anywhere else in the world. A 25-mile trip across town during rush hour can take up to three hours by car. With Marmaray, and with the revamped subway system that is to feed into the tunnel, it should take under 50 minutes. Overall, the project is expected to relieve Istanbul traffic by as much as 20 percent.

Marmaray is only the first in a long line of gifts that Erdogan's government is preparing for Turkey and Istanbul ahead of the country's centenary in 2023. Work has already begun on a third bridge over the Bosporus, which is expected to open in 2015, and on a giant mosque accommodating up to 37,500 faithful, planned for the following year. A new international airport, one of the world's largest, is will open around 2017 and keep on expanding well into the 2020s. And on the Turkish Republic's 100th birthday itself, the government plans to unveil the biggest project of the whole bunch -- a 25-mile long artificial canal connecting the Black and Marmara Seas, called Kanal Istanbul.

Erdogan's message to Turks with these projects is compellingly simple: "Think big." That's the slogan plastered in capital letters across his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP's) election billboards, touting the party ahead of municipal elections next year. Erdogan's government prides itself on getting things done, and the prime minister has talked ambitiously about transforming Turkey into a regional superpower and one of the world's 10- largest economies by 2023. These projects are the physical embodiment of that vision.

"[T]his government is successful because it has substantially improved the living standards of the majority of people," says Sahin Alpay, a columnist and lecturer at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University. "But this government has to a large extent also given Turks self-confidence to think, 'We can make it.'"

"Of course," he adds, "whether a project like the canal running parallel to the Bosporus will ever be possible to implement or whether it makes sense is another thing."

That's the inconvenient truth that could potentially mar Turkey's development in the years to come. Erdogan's projects are meant to announce Turkey's arrival on the world stage -- but they could also showcase a darker side of how the country is run. Many of the development plans are already coming under fire: The new bridge and the new airport, environmentalists warn, may spell disaster for the burgeoning city's last patch of natural forest. The Kanal Istanbul, which is intended to divert tanker traffic away from the Bosporus and could cost as much as $15 billion, threatens to create havoc in the ecosystems of the two seas it will join. The $60 million Camlica mosque, critics say, is little more than a vanity project.

The Marmaray line itself has come under some criticism, especially after a power blackout and technical problems caused several delays on the first day of service. This mishap revived concerns that the project had been rushed through to meet the Oct. 29 deadline. In a statement, the national rail authority insisted that the trains had come to a halt not because of any technical malfunction but because "some passengers who got on for the first time pushed the emergency button."

A more serious concern is the risk of earthquake damage. Here, officials and experts have done their best to reassure Turks that the tunnel, built just 11 miles north of an active fault line, would hold up during a major earthquake, the likelihood of which some scientists place at 70 percent over the next two decades. "Marmaray is safer than any other structure in Istanbul," Yilidirim said during a briefing with journalists. Mustafa Erdik, head of the Department of Earthquake Engineering at Istanbul's Bogazici University, was similarly confident. "As far as earthquake resistance design is concerned, I think it's above all of its peers," he tells Foreign Policy.

Erdogan's propensity for massive infrastructure might have endeared him to his base, but it has also alienated those Turks who are starting to think green rather than big. In a city gradually starved of green spaces -- and where the planned demolition of a tiny park was enough to spark the biggest anti-government protests in years this summer -- the premier might have to tread lightly. "An economy that is headed by the construction sector is creating an unlivable city," says Imre Azem, director of Ecumenopolis, an award-winning documentary on Istanbul's uncontrolled sprawl. "Whatever the cause of the Gezi protests was, it's going to be multiplied with these projects."