Did McCain Unwittingly Help Fund ISIS?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 25 2014 @ 1:25pm

Steve Clemons nails the compulsive interventionist for his enthusiastic support of various Sunni powers backing the insurgency against Assad in Syria:

“Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar,” John McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley in January 2014. “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, and for our Qatari friends,” the senator said once again a month later, at the Munich Security Conference. McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces.

And where did that support end up? Clemons fingers former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan for funding ISIS, which he suspects was the reason Bandar resigned that post in February:

As one senior Qatari official stated, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.” ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria. The Saudi government, for its part, has denied allegations, including claims made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that it has directly supported ISIS. But there are also signs that the kingdom recently shifted its assistance—whether direct or indirect—away from extremist factions in Syria and toward more moderate opposition groups. …

Like elements of the mujahideen, which benefited from U.S. financial and military support during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and then later turned on the West in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support, only to now pose a grave threat to the kingdom and the region.

Drum believes the moral of this story holds regardless of whether Clemons’ suspicions are correct:

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.

If the Saudis are backing ISIS, which he is quite sure they are, Peter Lee spitballs about what their endgame might be:

Anbar sheiks and local Ba’athists have, I would expect, a pretty clear-eyed understanding that ISIS will treat them well only as long as it is in ISIS’ interests to do so.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, after all, became an onerous and resented burden in Anbar, which the sheiks were able to shed through the “Anbar Awakening” i.e. death squads a go go a.k.a a JSOC/Sons of Iraq joint operation.

So I speculate that the cooperation of local non-jihadist anti-Maliki Sunnis with ISIS is predicated on the understanding that Saudi Arabia is condoning and endorsing the ISIS campaign, with the idea that once a “government of national unity” i.e. government with a Sunni veto is installed in Baghdad, or the whole country just fragments into de facto and increasingly de jure Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish zones, the Gulf states will step up in financial and security matters to avoid ISIS completely filling the resultant political and economic vacuum.

And in some ways, it seems to me, the only people who can truly defeat ISIS are Sunni Iraqis, just as they were the only ones, with help from JSOC, who could have defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, after the US invited them in. If we leave well alone, these various forces could fight to a new and more stable equilibrium – after intensifying the conflict even more.