Saudi Arabia and Syria Crisis: A Return to Ambiguity

Friday, May 3, 2013

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues

Since Saudi Arabia officially lent its support to the armed opposition fighting against the government of the Syrian President Bashar Assad in August 2011, and King Abdullah recalled his ambassador from Damascus after bitter criticism of Assad, Riyadh has been following a special approach to crisis in Syria. Before that development, Riyadh was standing in-between as it only provided Assad’s opposition with mainly media support while remaining actually silent in diplomatic and political fronts. As a result, there was no specific framework available within which the main approach of Riyadh to the crisis in Syria could be ascertained. This situation continued until the Al-Nusra Front, one of the offshoots of Al-Qaeda terrorist group, gained more and more power as the Syria crisis escalated to new levels, and finally turned into a major player in Syrian developments. This development was followed by increased ambiguity in Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria, so that, the possibility of explaining and predicting the policy of Riyadh toward Syria was reduced to a minimum.

One of the major goals that Saudi Arabia sought to achieve by supporting the armed opposition in Syria was to weaken the anti-Israeli resistance axis in the region and reduce its maneuvering power over major regional issues. The reason for the adoption of a new policy was rooted in regional rivalries between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran as a result of which Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria gradually changed course from a policy of détente to overt confrontation with Damascus. One year into the Syria crisis, Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria underwent a gradual change as a result of which, although confrontation with the government of Assad continued, the support offered for the Syria opposition was shrouded in more mystery and became more intricate. As a result of that development, new doubts were evident in Saudi Arabia’s interaction with the opposition forces in Syria. What was the main reason behind that change?

The remarks made by the Saudi King Abdullah in a meeting with Saudi Arabian Mufti Abdul Aziz al Ash-Shaikh, and a group of other Saudi ulema in April 2013, can provide clues to this enigma. During that meeting, he criticized some religious preachers who were trying to encourage Saudi youth to go to Syria and fight alongside the insurgents. King Abdullah not only urged the clerics to stop anti-Syria propaganda, but also asked for harsher punishments against those who “misguided” the Saudi youth. Before that and in June 2012, the Saudi Board of Senior Ulema had issued a fatwa in which it noted that “declaring Jihad in Syria” without the permission from the Saudi government was haram [religiously forbidden]. Such developments clearly indicated that the Saudi regime fears a repetition of bomb attacks and the insecurity which was rife in the country back in 2003 and 2004. In that time, the country was engulfed by a spate of insecurity after Saudi Mujahideen returned home from Afghanistan and Pakistan following the fall of the Taliban-run Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The returning Mujahids aimed to continue their Jihad inside their homeland.

Encouraging the Saudi youth to go to Syria for Jihad, which often meant their membership in the most radical Salafi groups in that country and getting familiar with their ideology, has been associated with fears about the situation in Saudi Arabia when they would return home. That situation will inevitably lead to resurgence of Al-Qaeda and its activities in Saudi Arabia once the crisis in Syria is over. Most people who arrive in Syria, both from the Arab or even Western countries, in order to fight the Syrian government, join the Al-Nusra Front. The model chosen by this front is reminiscent of the method used by the  Arab jihadist forces in Afghanistan in which they combined their ideological activities with military action. In this way, the rise of extremist tendencies among the Saudi youth, who are currently fighting in Syria, and the return of that extremism to Saudi Arabia once the crisis in Syria is over, seems to be quite a possibility.

This is only one dimension of developments in Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria. The second dimension of those developments is hedging against possible empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. At the beginning of the Syria crisis, Saudi Arabia got active in that country in order to weaken the anti-Israel resistance axis and also to take propaganda advantage of that crisis as a mental deterrent. Therefore, the Syria uprising did not appeal to the citizens of Saudi Arabia and Arab countries around it. By and by, however, Saudi Arabia found itself faced with a newly emerged axis which was rapidly expanding and which aimed to take advantage of the Syria crisis in order to grasp the power in the Arab country. In this way, Saudi Arabia found the regional current started by the Muslim Brotherhood as its second serious rival (in addition to the resistance axis), which in long term, could pose multiple essential and existential threats to member countries of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC]. As a result, closed-eye support for the Syria opposition fighting Assad came under increasingly growing fire inside Saudi Arabia. In fact, it is clear that in political terms, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most probable substitute for the government of Assad. Saudis are well aware of this fact.

The last and third dimension to Saudi Arabia’s change of policy toward Syria is related to the interaction of Riyadh with Tehran and the regional axis of resistance. In order to undermine the resistance axis and restore the balance which existed between the resistance axis and the moderate Arab states before the fall of the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia decided to enter the scene of Syria crisis. Syria became weak and Saudis actually achieved their primary goal. However, the main change in Saudi policy came about when the issue of toppling Assad and determining a substitute for his government became serious. Saudi Arabia only had one potential ally among the opposition groups fighting against Assad’s government: the Al-Nusra Front. However, due to domestic and foreign considerations, Riyadh did not want to be openly associated with that front and did not consider it a suitable substitute to the government of Assad. However, the empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood is also not an attractive option for Saudi Arabia. Therefore, for the first time in its political history, Saudi Arabia started to throw its weight behind the feeble liberal and nationalist currents among Syria opposition. However, Riyadh is well aware that the aforesaid current is too weak to be reckoned on and it is not probable to be of practical advantage to Saudi Arabia when it comes to rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Nusra Front.

Every one of the aforesaid developments serves to highlight the problems that Riyadh has been facing in interaction with the Syria crisis. At first, Riyadh aimed to oust Assad from the power and also continued to support the Syria opposition as long as their internal demarcations were not an issue. However, when it came to finding a substitute for the government of Assad, which fueled regional rivalries over the issue of succession, the Saudi policy toward Syria lost its initial transparency. The problem is that Riyadh has no suitable option at hand to be introduced as a good substitute to Assad. The Muslim Brotherhood is the most prominent group among Syria opposition. However, its ascension to power in Syria cannot be an attractive option for Saudi Arabia because it would actually mean to take Syria from the hands of one rival (resistance axis) only to submit it to another rival (the Muslim Brotherhood). The ascension of Al-Nusra Front to power would mean that the followers and supporters of Al-Qaeda would find a powerful propaganda and operational base both in and out of Saudi Arabia. The liberal part of Syria opposition is too weak in comparison to these two powerful currents and even its improbable ascension to power would be followed by important problems for Saudi Arabia. As long as the crisis in Syria has not led to practical dominance of one of the main political forces over the others, the vacillation and ambiguity in Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Syria is sure to continue.

Key Words: Saudi Arabia, Syria Crisis, Ambiguity, Armed Opposition, Iran, Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Nusra Front, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

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*Restructuring Yemen’s Security and Military Institutions and the Faceoff between Supporters of Hadi and Saleh:

*Palestine Observer State in the Light of Regional Groupings:

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