Friday, June 7, 2013

Syria Is Now Saudi Arabia's Problem

The battle for a town on the Lebanese border marks the kingdom's first attempt to lead Syria's fractured opposition.


Hezbollah can finally claim a victory in Syria. The town of Qusayr, adjacent to the Lebanese border, has fallen to the Lebanese militia after nearly a month of fierce battles with Syrian rebels. Dozens of Hezbollah's fighters have been killed, despite air cover and ground support from Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The Qusayr battle has been constantly, and wrongly, described as a turning point in the Syrian war. Why has this small town of some 30,000 residents become "strategic," as it is constantly described in the press, all of a sudden? The town had previously been run by its Sunni residents for more than a year, with little mention of its strategic benefits.

Hezbollah's open military intervention in Syria partly explains the publicity the Qusayr battle has received. As a result, the "Party of God" has lost much of its political and ideological capital in the region -- a capital the militia had painstakingly acquired from its three-decade career of "resisting" Israel.

But beyond the supposed military benefits of Qusayr, the battle for the town carried important consequences for the balance of power within the Syrian opposition. Qusayr is arguably the first battle in Syria to be completely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, marking the kingdom's first foray outside its sphere of influence along the Jordanian border. Riyadh has now taken over Qatar's role as the rebels' primary patron: In one sense, the Saudis can also claim a victory in Qusayr, as they have successfully put various rebel forces under the command of their ally in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idriss.

Although the Syrian rebels received military aid from various countries and private donors, Qatar initially emerged as the main sponsor of the opposition. Its alliance with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood helped it control the political opposition and the armed rebels' most prominent factions, including Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo.

But under increased pressure from the Untied States, Qatar has recently handed over the "Syrian dossier" to Saudi Arabia. Members of the Syrian opposition coalition made a two-day visit last month to Riyadh for the first time to coordinate with the Saudis. The opposition's delegates were asked by Riyadh to restructure the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the opposition, which they bitterly did three weeks later.

In response, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its aid. Riyadh provided the rebels with 35 tons of weapons, though the kingdom failed to provide them with the better-quality arms the FSA's chief of staff had requested. Significantly, Liwa al-Tawhid joined the battles in Qusayr -- a significant step, because the militia had always worked closely, and almost exclusively, with the Qataris and the Brotherhood. According to Gulf sources close to the Syrian opposition, Liwa al-Tawhid's commander, Abdulqader al-Saleh, has recently met with representatives of Saudi intelligence to coordinate military activities. Rebel fighters from Aleppo's Military Council and from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor also joined the battles.

The kingdom's clients have been making progress on the political level as well: Idriss has recently acquired wide-ranging powers within the Syrian National Coalition. Sources familiar with the opposition's talks in Istanbul last month told me the general was given a veto over the 14 provincial representatives from Syria's provinces, in addition to the 15 seats given to the Free Syrian Army. These combined 29 seats -- added to the eight seats given to the opposition figure Michel Kilo and 13 to the Democratic List, an alliance essentially backed by Riyadh -- significantly expanded Saudi Arabia's influence on the coalition and undermined the previous dominance of the Brotherhood.

The opposition's talks in Istanbul lasted for more than a week, and the coalition's Brotherhood-dominated General Assembly first refused to accept the expansion plan, despite ferocious pressure from Western ambassadors and representatives from the Gulf states. But according to Gulf sources, the coalition members were given an ultimatum a day before they finally accepted the expansion plan -- either accept it or Idriss would announce the creation of an FSA political wing that would supersede the coalition altogether. The General Assembly members backed down and accepted an even worse deal than what had initially been proposed.

To be sure, the Saudis could not have bolstered their leverage within the opposition without help from countries like the United States and Jordan. Riyadh works closely with almost all the players in the Syrian conflict, barring Qatar and Turkey. Contrary to popular belief, the kingdom supports moderate groups within the Syrian rebels to counter the influence of the Brotherhood and its Qatari patrons. As a result, Saudi Arabia's increased influence may help temper some of the rising fears of extremist trends within the armed opposition. Of course, the kingdom also supports Salafi-leaning groups to counter jihadi groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington has recently stepped up financial monitoring efforts to ensure that any aid to the Syrian rebels goes through Idriss, according to informed sources from the Gulf. These measures will of course be difficult to enforce, owing to the activities of private donors with established channels with the Syrian rebels -- and also due to the poorly regulated financial institutions of some countries, such as Kuwait. But they nevertheless mark an attempt to empower Idriss, and consequently the Saudis.

Nonetheless, Qatar can still pull a few strings within the opposition. A Syrian activist told me that Turkey-based representatives from Qatar had declined to meet a rebel group from Idlib a week before the opposition's talks in Istanbul. But after the expansion of the coalition, the representatives called the group back and apparently provided it with the ammunition it needed. Doha's influence may have decreased, but it can still use its established channels to maintain leverage over armed groups.

As it consolidates its takeover of the opposition, another factor that favors the Saudis is its tentative rapprochement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met last month with the Brotherhood's deputy leader, Mohammed Tayfour, for the first time. The Brotherhood had requested the meeting to mend its relations with the kingdom, which had shunned the group and stated privately on more than one occasion that it rejects the Brotherhood's dominance of Syria. The meeting was not an indication that the kingdom has opened it heart to the Brotherhood, as some have argued, but was meant to contain the group as Riyadh takes over from Qatar.

Still, the Saudis currently have little leeway to exercise their newfound influence. Washington and Moscow are still intent on organizing a "Geneva 2" conference, intended to bring together representatives from the Syrian regime and the opposition to reach a negotiated settlement. The preparations for Geneva 2 have meant that military options, such as increased aid for the rebels, are on pause until the talks take place or fail.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's victory in Qusayr was inevitable, but not the end of the story. Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the battles in this formerly obscure town marks a new beginning of warfare in Syria -- one many hope will add a sense of unity to rebel ranks and empower moderate opposition forces.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 06/06/2013

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Rise Of Shia Jihadism In Syria Will Fuel Sectarian Fires

By Hassan Hassan

Amid Syria's worsening crisis, there is another unprecedented, yet overlooked phenomenon that bodes ill for the entire region: the rise of global Shia jihadism. The number of foreign Shia jihadists in Syria is arguably greater than Sunni ones. So what will this new trend mean?

To be sure, foreign jihadists on both sides are destroying Syria. But the rise of Shia jihadis is adding a toxic mix to the already combustible sectarian tensions.

Shia and Sunni differ on the concept of jihad. According to both Sunni and western scholarship, jihad in Shia theology is seen as of a lesser priority. Some claim that Shia theology emphasises the suspension of jihad until the emergence of the Hidden Imam, a reading disputed by Shia scholars. In any case, Shia's armed activism has historically been limited to a person's immediate geography.

But that has changed dramatically during the Syrian uprising. While the trend is rooted in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more loosely in the Islamic revolution in Iran, now, for the first time in the history of Shia Islam, adherents are seeping into another country to fight in a holy war to defend their doctrine.

Aaron Y Zelin, an expert on jihadi groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US think tank, estimates that between 2,500 and 7,000 foreign Sunni fighters have participated in the conflict - some 500 to 600 of them have died, returned home or been arrested. Conservative estimates for Shia fighters put their numbers at double that of Sunni jihadi fighters.

Shia jihadism - fighting a holy war in the name of religion to expand territorially or defend co-religionists - has hitherto been almost unheard of. Additionally, the fact that the new phenomenon conveys pan-Shia sentiments distinguishes it from previous trends. Hizbollah's ideology cannot be considered jihad and is rather one that defines a sectarian militant party.

The phenomenon, which had been largely peculiar to Sunnis, marks a shift in Shia theology akin to the idea of vilayat e faghih - advanced by the founder of Iran's modern Islamist state, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who argued that a cleric can legitimately rule the Muslim community (unlike previously when that task was left till the coming of the Hidden Imam).

Ayatollah Khomeini advanced a novel idea that gave rise to active political Shiism. Similarly, the flow of Shia jihadists into Syria and the rhetoric behind it will change Shia Islam as we know it.

One only needs to consider how Sunni jihadism came to life after the Afghanistan war against the Soviets in the 1978s to conclude that the idea of exported Shia jihadism is here to stay. And we are likely to see it developing to engulf the region if the factors behind its rise are not addressed.

In Syria, this trend has been in the making since the early days of the anti-regime uprising. Videos emerged from the conflict showing Alawite militia leaders portraying the conflict as a cosmic war between Shia and Sunni, one that dates back to the 7th century. One Alawite militia leader said that the "battles you are fighting now are 1,400 years old" and "you are fighting on the side of Imam" Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet who was killed by the Umayyads' army, based in Damascus.

In Damascus the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, Hussain's sister, has been used as a recruitment tool. Shia fighters have come from Iraq, Yemen, Iran and Lebanon to defend the shrine from being attacked. Hizbollah's involvement has also been incremental, first by claiming it was defending Lebanese Shia villages, then defending Shia villages on the Syrian side of the border, and then by announcing recently it is fighting on the side of the regime. Hizbollah has described the death of its fighters as "martyrs [who died] while performing jihadi duties".

The fear is that the incremental escalation will potentially include, as some informed sources say, the demolition of holy shrines to galvanise reluctant Shia fighters. Religious sentiments among Shia are steadily building and, with time, these sentiments may be entrenched. The symbolism of the Zainab shrine, for example, is increasingly becoming an esoteric concept that does not need to be expounded.

Syria is significant in the conscience of both Shia and Sunni adherents. It is the land of the Umayyads, which can invoke memories of victory and defeat and images of the persecution of the Prophet's family. For Sunnis, Syria is associated with sayings of the Prophet suggesting it is a blessed land. Syria is also the land of resurrection of the saviour.

And yet, politics plays an instrumental role in stoking these tensions. There is a deep distrust between Shia and Sunni, with each side labelling the other as the "near enemy" for "stabbing Islam in the back". Politicians exploit these sentiments to divert attention from being themselves labelled as the near enemy, an idea adopted by many Salafi-jihadists.

Influential clerics who spew sectarian venom, like Egypt's Youssef Qardawi and Syria's Adnan Arour, should be stopped before it is too late. These clerics and their backers are playing with fire. Also, Arab states that disenfranchise their Shia citizens must take measures to prevent them from drifting towards the extreme.

Politicians who see the rising sectarian tensions and violent ideologies as politically expedient will find that these trends cannot be contained or managed.

-This commentary was published in the National on 05/06/2013