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.
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In the best of times, relations between Tehran and Riyadh have never been good, but for the past few years the relationship has deteriorated so much that it can best be described as a state of undeclared war.Skip to next paragraph
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Iran's dogged commitment to its nuclear program has exacerbated fears in Saudi Arabia that the Islamic Republic seeks regional domination and hegemony. As a result, the entire region has devolved into a geopolitical chessboard for the two powers. Clashes and Saudi proxy battles in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Bahrain have all occurred based on real or perceived Iranian infiltration.
The seesawing battles between Iran and Saudi Arabia have also recently extended into the international arena with the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. coming from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
For years, Syria has been the conduit through which Iranian influence has been peddled into the Levant. Iranian money, guns, and agents have flowed from Damascus to Hezbollah and Hamas, not to mention Syria itself.
Short of toppling the regime in Tehran, toppling Assad and replacing his regime with a more ideologically symmetric Sunni Islamist government would thus be the greatest possible prize in Saudi Arabia's struggle with its Persian foe. Not only would it remove Iran's greatest Arab ally, but it could potentially sever Tehran's connection to Hezbollah and Hamas.
King Abdullah staked out the Saudi position last August as the first Arab leader to castigate the Assad regime. While the Saudis escalated their rhetoric and began lobbying in Arab diplomatic circles for the creation of a united front against Assad, they also began to unchain their clerical soft power.
A steady stream of firebrand Islamic clerics and senior religious officials took to the airwaves with official Saudi sanction to excoriate the Assad regime and encourage pious Muslims to strive against it. The influence of these clerics and the increasing connection between them and fighters in Syria is evidenced by communiqués from armed groups like the “Supporters of God Brigade” in Hama.
The Saudi decision to endorse such religious statements is a sign that the rulers 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 been utilized to fight Egyptian President Gama Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab movement in Yemen, the Serbs in Bosnia, and of course the Soviets in Afghanistan, to name just a few cases.