WASHINGTON -- As power in Saudi Arabia shifted to a new monarch, King Salman, the Obama administration's praise of both Salman and his predecessor stood as a clear answer about whether the kingdom may become less important for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Salman's announcement that he would stick to the course that the late King Abdullah had charted appeared to seal the deal.
Still, even if the change afoot inside the secretive kingdom is limited, it merits close attention in Washington circles because it may affect the latest U.S. priority in region: the fight against the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia plays a major role in the knottiest aspect of that fight -- the effort to vanquish ISIS in Syria. Like the U.S. -- and unlike most other members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS that have focused on Iraq -- the Saudis have sent jets to bomb the group in the Syrian regions where it first gained strength and broader influence.
Saudi Arabia is also essential for the element of the U.S. strategy against ISIS that President Barack Obama underscored this week in his State of the Union address: empowering the moderate Syrian opposition. Under King Abdullah, who died Friday, Saudi Arabia poured money into the Syrian conflict, investing in rebel groups -- including the al Qaeda affiliate there -- as Abdullah pursued his goal of unseating Syrian President Bashar Assad, a proxy of Saudi Arabia's arch-nemesis, Iran.
The result is that Saudi Arabia now has useful intelligence on the groups the U.S. will be arming and training within Syria later this year. Saudi Arabia is one of only three Muslim countries (the others are Turkey and Qatar) that would allow the U.S. to set up rebel-training camps on its soil.
Tackling ISIS is an existential imperative for the kingdom. The group counts U.S.-friendly Arab governments among its top targets and has said it aims to gain control of Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia that are the source of much of the Saudi leaders' authority around the Muslim world.
Nick Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, told HuffPost Thursday that the key risk for the ISIS fight was potential instability in Saudi Arabia following the succession that could weaken its commitment. Heras said in an email that the consequences of such volatility may include shifting Syrian rebel training centers elsewhere, ISIS expansion into the kingdom that would bolster the group's claim that it should control Muslim holy sites, and a major shift in international attention to protecting crucial oil supplies from Saudi Arabia that could slow the rebel-training effort.
Salman's announcement Friday eased worries of internal unrest, and Syrian opposition sources and U.S. officials on Friday said the U.S.-Saudi partnership on ISIS remains firm.
“The depth of our relationship is evident in our coordination on regional issues such as the Global Coalition to counter ISIL, supporting the Syrian opposition, Middle East peace, and supporting Egypt’s transition," a State Department spokesman told The Huffington Post in an email. "Our relationship is strong, enduring and well-founded, and all of these efforts will continue. We look forward to continuing our close partnership under the leadership of King Salman, with whom we worked closely over the past years in his former capacities as Crown Prince and Minister of Defense.”
"I would expect the new King to stay the path in the kingdom's support for the Syrian people's struggle for freedom," Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the Syrian political opposition and principal at the defense consultancy Dragoman Partners, told HuffPost via email. Saudi Arabia has been a major backer for the Syrian political opposition, prompting criticism from some Syrians and regional observers of excessive influence that sidelined more secular members of the opposition.
Constant as the Saudi interest in Syria is likely to be, it may manifest in new ways and therefore affect the U.S.-led battle against ISIS and U.S. policy in the region, sources said.
A congressional aide familiar with Saudi views of the Syrian conflict told The Huffington Post on Friday that Syria policy could change even if the new king appears loyal to Abdullah's vision. One of Salman's powerful advisers -- who are associated more with Salman's branch of the royal family than that of the late king -- may take on the Syria file himself. The aide said the question of who in Riyadh controls the policy is important as the U.S. considers competing proposals from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern partners on how to train the Syrian rebels.
Some reports say the upper hand appears to be held by a son of the late king, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who heads Saudi Arabia's national guard. Other reports, including one Friday by Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, say the Syria portfolio had been passed last year to a member of Salman's branch of the family, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Nayef has been elevated to deputy crown prince, which means he is likely to take over the country after Salman's successor.
"Mohammed bin Nayef has taken some bold steps in his capacity as the strategist on Syria," Khatib wrote. She praised bin Nayef's rehabilitation of Saudis who have joined groups like ISIS and his relationship with an element of the moderate Syrian armed opposition that has, unlike others, remained fairly successful, the Southern Front. She also spoke of him as a "pragmatist," more willing than other Saudi and Sunni Arab leaders to work alongside the Shiite power Iran, which is also fighting ISIS with tacit U.S. coordination.
Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington who is now a terrorism analyst at the intelligence contractor JTG Inc. in Virginia, told The Huffington Post in an email Friday that he would not be surprised if the Saudis rethought their involvement in efforts against ISIS -- especially as evidence grows that the U.S. may not share their goal of removing the Iran-backed Assad regime.
The congressional aide acknowledged that difference, but said the Saudis would be unlikely to fully back away from the ISIS fight, given the threat the militant group poses to the ruling family.
Nazer suggested that even without pulling out the conflict, however, Riyadh could pursue its anti-Iran goal by influencing training of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels at the bases it will be hosting. He said there was "an air of uncertainty as to whether these fighters would only be tasked with fighting [the Islamic State] or the Assad regime as well."
Details on the U.S.-funded program to train and equip those fighters haven't been released. But Washington has made clear it will move forward with supplying arms and advanced knowledge to Syrians it deems moderate. U.S. defense officials said last week that at least 400 advisers and hundreds of enabling forces would be sent to the rebel-training centers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey this spring.