Saudis Tip-Toe Into the War on ISIS

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal addresses a news conference following a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Mohamed Alhwaity/Reuters

Western technicians at Dhahran Air Base like to joke that the only aircraft the Saudis can keep in the air by themselves is a model of a British Tornado on a pedestal at the gates.

Indeed, the entire Saudi military arsenal—including the world's biggest fleet of American F-15s outside of the U.S. and Japan—couldn't function without the several hundred mostly American and British technicians who keep the royal family's tanks, ships, artillery and warplanes in working order. As with everything else in the Saudi economy, from servants to oil field workers, the Saudis just don't "do" such hands-on work.

The same goes for Saudi ground troops: There are officers, and there are grunts (not all of them Saudis), and nothing in-between. The concept of a corps of sergeants actually running things, is, well, foreign, to the desert kingdom's rulers, for a variety of tribal and cultural reasons. But as any Western general knows, an army wins (or doesn't) on the strength of its sergeants, the blue-collar guys down below the colonels, majors and lieutenants who prod the grunts and make sure things get done. And it's the sergeants who do the training.

So when Obama administration officials talk about helping finance and train so-called "moderate" Syrians to take on the Islamic State, they're only half-right. In the Saudis' shopworn custom, the kingdom will certainly fork over millions to finance the fight, but if they do any training at all it will probably be carried out by others—the hundreds of U.S. and British military advisors on scene in the kingdom.

Likewise, the prospect of Saudi pilots banking their F-15s into dive-bombing runs against ISIS targets in Iraq or Syria, is a fantasy. Just getting the king to issue a denunciation of the neck-slicing savages was considered a major victory in official Washington.

"They will be relying on foreigners—Americans mostly, as I understand it," for training, says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House Middle East expert now at the Brookings Institution. "They have zero capacity to do the training themselves. Even if we backed out, they would just hire [military contractor] MPRI or groups like them to do the training."

"It will be a Saudi face for a U.S effort," agrees Patrick Skinner, a former CIA operative in Iraq who frequently travels the Middle East for the Soufan Group, a private organization led by former FBI, CIA and British intelligence officers. "Not a bad thing," he adds, "but it will be interesting to see how effective the result is. After all, we spent untold time and treasure training up the Iraqi and Afghan armies that are proving completely inept. Why do we think we can do it even faster with Syrian rebels? It makes no sense."

Having Americans continuing to play a key role in Saudi Arabia's defense doesn't make a lot of sense, either, at least politically. It was the main organizing cry for al Qaeda: Get the Americans out of the "land of the two holy Mosques," Mecca and Medina.

On top of that, the Saudi Ministry of Defense is facing a leadership vacuum, leaving it outside the loop of royal decision making, according to a former top U.S. diplomat in the region. But the Ministry of Interior, he added on condition of anonymity to discuss such sensitive matters, could offer substantive help to whatever coalition President Obama can string together to combat ISIS: After two decades battling al Qaeda-inspired domestic insurgents and terrorists, the 100,000-strong MOI knows the enemy and its techniques well, and almost certainly has its own intelligence sources in Syria (which Washington sorely lacks, by all accounts).

"It could certainly arm" the Syrian rebel factions of its choosing, the former ambassador said. Even more important, he added, the ministry is led by Mohammad bin Nayef, 55, a member of the House of Saud and a potential contender for the throne. "It will only work if he's on board."

Experts on the Saudis cautioned that the king's recent verbal attacks on ISIS should not be dismissed as mere talk, as some influential American commentators have it.

"It is a really big step that the Saudis are doing this and publicly announcing that they doing it," Pollack told Newsweek. "That is not how they do things, so this is a very deliberate effort on their part to show their commitment to this fight."

It's also important because, "We haven't been on same page with them on Syria for a long time," said the former ambassador. "There's been a lot of bad blood" between Riyadh and Washington--and not just over Syria. The Saudis themselves nourished the brand of puritanical Islam that would give birth to al Qaeda and its evil stepchild, the Islamic State. Denouncing its savagery seems beyond hypocritical on the part of the royals: In the past month alone, the kingdom's executioners beheaded 19 people in "Chop-Chop Square," Riyadh's medieval justice forum, nearly half for nonviolent crimes.

"It's important for symbolic reasons," agrees Richard Barrett, the former head of counterterrorism for MI6, Britain's secret intelligence service. "They can't sit on sidelines… They have to take a role of some sort," he told Newsweek. "Even if their role is small, it should be visual and actual."

Barrett also suggested the "allies" start thinking the unthinkable: Saudi, Iranian and U.S. military commanders publicly coordinating attacks on ISIS—as a prelude to a regional peace agreement. Bombing ISIS into submission alone, he pointed out, won't solve the bigger problem of the region—the struggle of Shiites and Sunnis for hegemony in the Middle East.

"At some point," he said, "the Saudis and Iran will have to cooperate." Why not now?

Jeff Stein writes Spytalk from Washington, D.C.