Saudi Arabia's Syrian jihad
By Joshua Jacobs - Apr 6, 2012
If there was any doubt as to Saudi intentions in Syria, that veil was ripped away on Sunday at the Istanbul "Friends of Syria" conference. The Saudis and their Gulf allies spearheaded an effort to create a formalized pay structure for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and privately ruminated on the possibility of setting up official supply conduits to forces fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This decision went much further than what the West, or even neighboring Turkey, seemed willing to embrace. But while the United States and her allies are wary of seeing Syria become a sectarian battleground, the power brokers in Riyadh are enthusiastically hurtling towards it.
When the Syrian uprising began last March, Saudi Arabia was in a state of panic. The revolution in Egypt, the uprising in Bahrain, and the bubbling civil war in Yemen consumed attention and cultivated a manic siege mentality. This fear and clarion call for stability stymied any potential efforts at exploiting the regional chaos. However as the Saudi domestic and geopolitical situation began to stabilize, they began to look hungrily at the potential opportunity in Syria.
The shift onto the offensive began in early August when King Abdullah tested the waters by staking out a position as the first Arab leader to castigate the Assad regime. While the Saudis escalated their rhetoric and began lobbying in Arab diplomatic circles, they also began to unchain their clerical soft power. A steady stream of firebrand clerics and senior religious officials began to take to the airwaves with official Saudi sanction to excoriate the Assad regime and encourage pious Muslims to strive against it. Clerics like Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian-born Salafist preacher who has called for a jihad against the Assad regime have been given prime time coverage. The influence of these clerics and the increasing connection between them and fighters in Syria is evidenced by communiques from armed groups like the 'Supporters of God Brigade' in Hama which declared allegiance to al-Arour.
To experienced Saudi watchers the escalating religious rhetoric being encouraged in the Kingdom may seem perplexing. For much of the past decade the Saudi government has worked to muzzle and regulate the ability of clerics to make calls for jihad, reinforcing the doctrine that such an action is only valid if endorsed by the King and his senior religious authorities. This was done to suppress the flow of recruits not only to al-Qaeda but to insurgent groups in Iraq and Yemen. However the Saudi decision is a sign that they are once again willing to embrace one of the most potent weapons in the Kingdom's arsenal, state directed jihad.
It is one of the most tried and true weapons the Kingdom possesses having utilized it to fight Nasser in Yemen, the Serbs in Bosnia, and of course the Soviets in Afghanistan to name just a few. The Saudis have clearly made the calculus that the potential fruits of toppling Assad, and enthroning a Sunni aligned regime in Damascus are well worth the political risk.
While the Istanbul conference marked what could arguably be termed the beginning of an overt state of conflict between Riyadh and Damascus, the signs have been building for months that the covert war has been in full swing. Reports that Saudi agents have been working in Jordan and Iraq to finance smuggling routes appear to have a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence, and is certainly a view endorsed by those taking part in such activities on the ground. While unsubstantiated and likely untrue accusations that Saudi Arabia has played a role in the spate of suicide attacks in Damascus belie a more likely fear that the Kingdom is strengthening its ties amongst Islamist groups in Syria.
The danger of course is that while Saudi Arabia embarks on its jihad to topple Assad, it will get free reign in picking the winners and losers amongst the opposition. This will have the effect of distorting the movement by strengthening ideologically allied Islamist groups at the expense of moderates and secularists. Indeed there is a worrying precedent in Afghanistan where the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency altered the political landscape by controlling who did or did not receive support. If the Western powers, Turkey included, voluntarily stand aside and let Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies unilaterally control the process of arming the opposition, then they might find themselves appalled at the result.
The international community as a whole should be cautious in the manner that it approaches intervention in Syria. Footing responsibility to Saudi Arabia and her allies risks ideologically poisoning the opposition movement as Sunni religious groups receive disproportionate support and other groups adapt their message to receive support. If the United States and her Western allies are committed to supporting the Syrian revolution, they cannot afford to sit back and do it through intermediaries.
Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.
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(Copyright 2012 Joshua Jacobs)