Every nation bordering Syria—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey—is being drawn into the conflict there. The leaders in these countries are worried, to say the least. But why is Saudi Arabia in a panic?
None of the Syrian warfare is spilling over into Saudi Arabia. Iraq and Jordan serve as buffers. Still, hundreds if not thousands of Saudis (nobody’s counting) are pouring into Syria to fight with one or another of the factions trying to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And that has Saudi leaders terrified.
Saudi Arabia’s most important cleric, Grand Mufti Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik, recently warned that there was no religious reason for Saudis to join the Syrian war.
“The situation in Syria is chaotic due to the proliferation of armed groups that do not fight under a unified banner,” he said. “This is not considered jihad, which must be approved by rulers.” Among those rulers he seemed to be including himself. And a year ago, Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Ulema, the state’s highest religious authority, issued a fatwa prohibiting fighting in Syria without permission from the authorities.
King Abdullah also warned Saudis to stay out of it—as have many other Saudi government officers over many months—to no good effect.
Why are they so concerned? Well, all of them remember well what happened almost ten years ago when thousands of Saudis joined the jihads against the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and then came back and turned their weapons on Saudis and foreigners who lived there. Hundreds died.
I was working there as a journalist then, and General Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told me that many of the domestic attacks were by men who came back to the country after fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Drawing on interviews with arrested “terrorists,” as he called them, Turki said: “They were angry that their dream,” a fundamentalist Islamic state, “had been killed by America. They wanted to spread their war against the United States and found that doing this was easier in their own country. But it wasn’t until the invasion of Iraq that they could convince others in the country to share their goals. For that reason, the invasion was very important to them.”
Well, today most of the Saudi men fighting in Syria have joined the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate—giving further worry to Saudi leaders.
But at the same time, as Saudi leaders fear the problems their own people may face when those jihadists return home, they are also at the forefront of the nations calling for Assad’s removal from power. (Saudi Arabia, after all, is the protector of Sunni Islam, and Assad is Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam.)
A couple of weeks ago, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal formally proclaimed that Assad had no right to attend the proposed Geneva peace summit, intended to bring a negotiated end to the war.
“It is impossible for Assad, his regime and its affiliates to play a role in the future of Syria,” the minister told reporters in Jeddah—bringing howls of complaint from Damascus.
It seems unlikely Saudi Arabia can succeed at having it both ways.
This post has been revised to specify President Assad’s religion.