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Opinion

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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However, this Saudi-endorsed religious call to arms is a dangerous weapon. Allowing preachers to fulminate against Assad and raise the standard of jihad risks leading to a resurgence of radical Islamist groups. It gives them political space to operate in and provides access to new recruits by tapping into the state-sponsored movement.

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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.

The sort of rebels that Saudi Arabia would feel most comfortable backing are going to be drawn from the Sunni Islamist groups, like factions of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia has tremendous clerical connections across the Muslim world, and its ability to tap into the mosques of Syria for recruits should not be underestimated.

This is worrisome as it could have the effect of distorting the opposition movement by strengthening ideologically allied Islamist groups over moderates, secularists, and others opposed to the Assad regime, giving Saudi Arabia a critical role in shaping the narrative of the conflict.

The Americans cannot afford to stand by and let this potentially dangerous narrative develop without them. As a counter-balance to Saudi influence, if the current ceasefire does not hold, the US should initiate direct contact with the Free Syrian Army and its allies with an eye toward establishing military and civilian supply routes

The US must also match the position of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states regarding the creation of safety corridors and zones in Syria. The public exploration of such an option with Turkey should commence as soon as possible. Finally, if the ceasefire does not hold, the international community should consider using limited military force against the Assad regime.

Policymakers should understand that with or without US intervention, the violence in Syria will continue unabated (if the ceasefire doesn't hold, that is) and that the disintegration of Assad's regime is still plausible. However, without American and Western involvement, there can be no American or Western influence in the post-Assad Syria. Nor can there be any control or insulation from the fallout of a Saudi jihad.

That concern over Syria’s future holds – whether the current ceasefire does or not.

Joshua Jacobs is a Gulf Policy Analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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