U.S. officials continue to insist that our Middle Eastern allies are crucial to the fight against
The extensive and haphazard actions of some Persian Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in the
Their involvement in Syria over the last few years has fragmented the Syrian opposition, promoted sectarianism and put money and weapons into the hands of extremist fighters, creating fertile ground for the growth of Islamic State.
Tiny Qatar, for example, lacking any on-the-ground knowledge of Syria, turned to Syrian expatriates in Doha for fighters and organization. It then funded many small brigades, each headed by a different commander from among these Syrian expats. This system provided no incentive for rebel groups to work together to overthrow Assad. Instead, it encouraged them to compete against one another for money.
Saudi Arabia initially funneled its financial support to the moderate
Further, arms deliveries to moderate groups were slow to arrive. This forced them to seek private funding from wealthy citizens of the Persian Gulf states, who tended to support sectarian causes. Donations flowed primarily to Islamists, and encouraged less radical groups to emphasize Islamist credentials.
America's Middle Eastern allies also proved unwilling — and later unable — to crack down on their private citizens' funding of extremists in Syria. Leaders in many gulf states turned a blind eye to the fact that money collected by Salafi clerics for "humanitarian" relief in Syria was in fact going to military purposes. Only in 2013 did Saudi Arabia finally ban its citizens from funding rebel groups directly, a prohibition that has had little effect.
Worse, these governments often couldn't maintain control over the supplies they sent into Syria, meaning arms and cash found their way into the hands of radicals.
Qatar in particular rarely vetted the recipients of their aid. In the most extreme case, in their zeal to bring down the Assad government, Qatari officials even advocated funding Al Nusra Front, despite that group's strong ties to Al Qaeda.
Many factors have, of course, contributed to the Syrian disaster and the rise of Islamic State. Still, it's hard to dispute that the incompetent interference of states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar made the conflict become more extreme. As Vice President
Secretary of State John F. Kerry asserted in September that "Arab nations play a critical role in [the] coalition." Defense Secretary
His message was clear: The United States will not challenge its Middle Eastern allies, even when they purposefully undermine U.S. interests.
Yet as their many failures and fixations in Syria show, states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are unreliable and capricious allies. We cannot count on them to consider U.S. interests; indeed, their concerns often run counter to our foreign policy interests. As other regional issues escalate, including the war in Yemen, these are lessons the United States must fully absorb.
Emma Ashford is a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute and author of the new study "Friends Like These: Why Petrostates Make Bad Allies."