The West should take the horrific occasion of the Paris attacks to reconsider its acquiescence in Saudi priorities for Syria and the Middle East. From the vantage point of Riyadh, the great danger emanating from the Middle East is the spread of Iranian influence. But from a European and American point of view, the rise of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, and its campaign of terror abroad, is the most urgent threat, along with a proliferation of Al Qaeda affiliates. That King Salman is simply mistaken has been amply demonstrated.
I am making an argument about priorities, not in any way suggesting that the virtually genocidal Bashar al-Assad can be allowed to remain in office in the long term. Assad’s disingenuous suggestion that France was wrong to back the revolutionaries against his regime in 2011, and that it should now support his murderous policies, is pure misdirection. Assad pushed the rebels toward radicalism by firing tank shells at peaceful demonstrators. He for the most part avoided fighting Daesh, apparently hoping that if it were the most successful rebel group, the world would have no choice but to line up behind him. His suggestion that somehow Parisians are to blame for the attacks on them is both tasteless and monstrous. It is also true, however, that his regime is not the most pressing threat to the North Atlantic world.
The young suicide bombers who brought down darkness on the City of Light are said to have spoken of grievances regarding French airstrikes on Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Clearly gullible, they had been fed a line. Daesh had not been a French priority, just as it is not a Saudi one. Riyadh had flown some missions in Syria against the phony caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but never struck it in northern Iraq, and in recent months has ceased those missions in favor of concentrating on its war on the Houthi rebels in Yemen. France only began bombing Daesh positions in Syria in September, though it has flown missions in Iraq for the past year.
We may conclude that for Saudi Arabia, defeating the Houthis in Yemen is a more pressing matter than attacking Daesh. The United States and France have been heavily arming the Saudis, who are not bothering to join in the campaign against the most menacing enemy of the West. King Salman sees the Houthis, who derive from the Zaidi Shiite community in Yemen (making up about a third of the population) as agents of Iran. In fact, they are indigenous Arabs, however brutal their methods have been, and there is no evidence they have received significant aid from Iran. Salman has led a coalition that has intensively bombed Yemen, including civilian neighborhoods, with planes being refueled midair by the United States, in what is clearly a huge unnecessary tragedy and distraction from the menace of the phony caliphate. Just as bad, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been strengthened by the turmoil produced by the Saudi war on Yemen.