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Syrian conflict, Saudi pain


The Syrian conflict has become a protracted affair that has warped into a bloody free-for-all, dividing the country deeply along political and sectarian religious lines. Since the conflict began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s secular government has accused some countries of supporting radical Islamists, while the accused countries deny this, saying groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are fighting oppression. Their denial has become untenable with the emergence of radical groups such as, first, Al-Nusra — an al Qaeda affiliate — and now the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham, or ISIS, a group so violent even against other opposition groups that al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri tried to disband it. The presence of these groups has become a major headache for supporters of the rebels, particularly Saudi Arabia, which was heavily involved in the initial training, funding, and arming of the FSA at camps on the Jordan-Syria border. Reports that Islamist fighters were flocking to Syria were dismissed by the Saudis amongst others as Syrian government propaganda. No more. The evidence that al Qaeda-inspired groups are committing sectarian atrocities in Syria is now irrefutable, to the point that last year other Syrian rebel groups had to resist ISIS themselves. This fractured the rebel movement and is part of the reason Assad survives today.
More worrying for the Saudi regime are the estimated 2,000 Saudi citizens in Syria acting as fighters and aid workers, almost all of them with extreme radical groups like ISIS. The last time Saudi citizens fought a jihad, in Afghanistan, they returned with ideas of overthrowing the regime itself and formed al Qaeda with the specific aim of ending the US-Saudi alliance. Even while the Saudi leadership debates continuing aid to rebel groups in Syria, a recent decree by King Abdullah imposed harsh prison terms on Saudi nationals who travel abroad to fight in a foreign war. Last year Saudi intelligence seized more than 30 bank accounts they believe were used to funnel money to Syrian extremists. Despite this they say it is possible for them to meet both their objectives of toppling the Assad regime while bringing al Qaeda and its affiliated groups under control. The irony of al Qaeda affiliates receiving aid from the US, the west and allies like Saudi Arabia is not lost on anyone. What might not be clear, however, is that Saudi Wahabiism, already considered the harshest and most regressive Islamic ideology in the world, is a perfect breeding ground for even more extreme views. Fighters indoctrinated with the ideology are then blooded and desensitised in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, making it no surprise that they see themselves, and not the Saudi regime, as the true defenders of the faith. The regime is now in the awkward position of being perceived as ‘moderate’ by the radical fundamentalists it has supported.  *

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Aaj Kal