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.

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.'

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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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