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The danger that Saudi Arabia will turn Syria into an Islamist hotbed

A tentative UN-brokered ceasefire does not settle Western concerns over Saudi intervention in Syria. While the US and its allies are wary of seeing Syria become a sectarian battleground, the power brokers in Riyadh seem to have been hurtling toward it – with a form of state-sponsored jihad.

By Joshua Jacobs / April 12, 2012

A Syrian woman walks past a painting of the Syrian revolutionary flag and writing that reads "only al-Arour," the name of an Islamic cleric living in Saudi Arabia who opposes President Bashar al-Assad, in a neighborhood of Damascus April 2. Op-ed contributor Joshua Jacobs worries that Saudi Arabia's involvement in Syria will give it 'free reign in picking the winners and losers among the opposition – likely Islamist groups at the expense of moderates and secularists.'

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Even as a tentative ceasefire brings an uneasy calm to Syria, opposition leaders and US officials express skepticism that it will hold, particularly in the face of the Assad regime’s record of broken promises. Demonstrations planned for April 13 will test that commitment to stop the violence.

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A UN-brokered ceasefire does not settle the concerns over what has been an increasingly aggressive Saudi intervention in Syria. While the United States and its allies are wary of seeing Syria become a sectarian battleground, the power brokers in Riyadh seem to have been hurtling toward it. The Saudis look to have clearly made the calculus that the potential fruit from toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and enthroning a Sunni aligned regime in Damascus is well worth the political risk.

The danger with this scenario is that while Saudi Arabia embarks on its jihad to topple Mr. Assad, it will get free reign in picking the winners and losers among the opposition – likely Islamist groups at the expense of moderates and secularists.

If there was any doubt as to Saudi Arabian intentions in Syria, that veil was ripped away at the recent “Friends of Syria” conference in Istanbul. 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 anti-Assad forces. This effort went much further than what the West, or even neighboring Turkey, seemed willing to embrace.

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 Riyadh’s attention and cultivated a manic siege mentality.

However as the Saudi domestic and geopolitical situation began to stabilize, the rulers began to look at the potential opportunity to topple the Assad regime in Syria, and seize the initiative in Saudi Arabia's increasingly tense standoff with Iran.

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