President-elect Donald Trump has been very clear since elected that he intends to shift US policy in Syria, saying he fully expects to end the CIA’s program of arming “moderate” rebels, noting that the US doesn’t know who these groups really are, and saying he wants to focus on fighting ISIS.
The rebels have been listening, and with the possible loss of the CIA gravy train that’s been keeping them at least semi-relevant throughout the civil war, the groups are looking for the Saudis to make up the difference, and also looking to get even closer to al-Qaeda.
Despite the US pretense of these groups being “vetted moderates,” most of the rebels are already plenty close with al-Qaeda, with some portions of the Free Syrian Army operating as little more than an auxiliary wing of al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, funneling US arms through nominal moderates to the Islamists.
This wasn’t a huge problem from the CIA’s perspective, seeing the war’s continuation as an end unto itself. It likewise probably won’t scare the Saudis away, as they see Syria as a proxy war with Shi’ite Iran, and have historically been more than happy to use Salafist groups in such conflicts.
The big question, however, is how much this will make up for the rebels losing the CIA’s backing, as the CIA was smuggling Saudi arms to them en masse in the first place, and they were already plenty close with al-Qaeda.