Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to provide bases to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters to combat the Islamic State, or ISIS, at the request of the United States, according to reports.
President Obama spoke with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Wednesday, hours before laying out his strategy to combat the militant group, who have taken control of huge swathes of Iraq and Syria. The White House said: “The president and the king agreed on the need for increased training and equipping of the moderate Syrian opposition.”
While the Saudis would be hosting the training program on their soil, the actual training of fighters would most likely be carried out by another country -- possibly the U.S.
The presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia has been controversial. Many Muslims objected to the presence of foreign troops in the country that is home to Mecca, Islam's holiest site. Though the U.S. withdrew the bulk of its troops from Saudi Arabia in 2003, a small official military presence remains in the country.
In February, it was also revealed that the CIA had been secretly operating a drone base from the country for two years. A drone from the base was used in Sept. 2011 to kill al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula member Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Islamic cleric.
News of the proposed training program comes ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Saudi Arabia Thursday. Kerry is on a tour of the Middle East, in a bid to shore up a coalition to take on ISIS.
According to a New York Times report, the Saudis are deeply concerned about the security threat ISIS poses to their country, and are emerging as a key member of the anti-ISIS coalition the Obama administration is trying to form because of their financial resources and Islamic regional credentials.
In June, the Saudis angrily denied accusations from then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki that the country was supporting the Islamic State. According to a report in the Guardian, wealthy individuals and religious foundations in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf have channeled millions of dollars to the anti-Assad opposition, though it is not clear with what degree of official connivance, nor to which groups the money went.
Saudi Arabia has increasingly seen ISIS as a threat to its national security. In early July, it sent 30,000 troops to its border with Iraq, claiming that the Iraqi military had deserted the area in the face of an onslaught from ISIS.
The threat the group posed to Saudi Arabia was reportedly underscored earlier this year, by the discovery of scores of Saudi citizens inside the kingdom, colluding with Saudi members of ISS in Syria, to assassinate top security and religious officials in the country, according to a report from The Hill.