Saudi Arabia would like to exploit the Syrian uprising to topple the al Assad regime — not necessarily for its own sake, but as a means of countering the rise of Saudi Arabia's main regional rival, Iran. To that end, Riyadh has openly begun to support armed rebels fighting against the Syrian regime. In addition to providing financial assistance, the Saudis can deploy militants who are ideologically motivated to combat Iran and its various Shiite allies.
Jihad and Saudi Foreign Policy
Numbering from several hundred to a few thousand, the fighters — at least in the beginning — would be motivated to fight the Alawites, an offshoot of mainstream Shiism. Many of the fighters are Salafist-jihadists already located in Syria or in neighboring Lebanon, and some are Syrians who previously fought in Iraq. There also are many jihadists who fought the Saudi regime before going through a rehabilitation program and who are now eager to fight in Syria.
It is important to note that jihad is not the same as jihadism. Jihad, in the military sense, is an authentic Islamic concept pertaining to the rules of just warfare — largely the prerogative of a legitimate Islamic political entity. Jihadism is a 20th-century ideology of fringe radical Islamists who see jihad (armed struggle) as a means to topple Muslim governments and replace them with what they deem Islamic states.
Given Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative religious character, its rehabilitation program entails moving the fighters away from jihadism and back toward more classical notions of jihad. As a result, Saudi counterterrorism and de-radicalization efforts do not argue against the notion of jihad; no Muslim country in which the state emphasizes Islam's role in public affairs and has a society with a sizable religiously observant population can make a case against jihad and maintain stability. This is especially true for the Saudi kingdom, whose key pillar is an austere Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
In their efforts to reintegrate former jihadists into mainstream society, the Saudis made the argument that non-state actors could not engage in jihad because jihad in its true sense is a state-led initiative. This raises the question: Under what circumstances would rulers declare jihad? The question is particularly relevant at a time when there is widespread belief among Muslims — not just in the kingdom but across the Islamic world — that there is a U.S.-led war being waged against Islam and Muslims.
The Saudis must balance this domestic policy imperative of maintaining credibility by encouraging jihad abroad with their foreign policy commitments to the United States and the West. And from Riyadh's point of view, the threat does not come from the West, but from Iran and its Shiite allies. Therefore, from the Saudi perspective immediate jihad must be waged against Tehran and its Arab Shiite collaborators who, after dominating the Levant, have taken over Iraq and now threaten the Arabian Peninsula itself.
Riyadh may well derive some benefits from this initiative — there is no shortage of Islamist militants willing to fight Iran, Shia and Alawites, especially after the reported killing of nearly 10,000 mostly Sunni civilians at the hands of the Syrian regime. But the use of jihadists to achieve foreign policy goals is a force that cannot be managed because of the fluid nature of the insurgent landscape, which includes multiple groups pursuing their own national or transnational goals. It is easy for state actors to insert proxies, but once on the battlefield it is difficult to maintain oversight of these forces, especially for Saudi Arabia, which has neither a border with Syria nor a great deal of influence in neighboring territories.
Different streams of Islamist militants interfacing with one another for the limited purpose of promoting or preventing regime change can easily turn into a much broader enterprise. The Saudis are no strangers to this problem. The founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdulaziz, experienced this in the late 1920s. His elite tribal-religious militia, the Ikhwan, which helped conquer most of Nejd and Hejaz, did not want to cease its jihad and began attacking the Shia in southern Iraq.
At the time Iraq was under the control of the British, who placed pressure on the king to rein in his militia. King Abdulaziz had to rally a larger tribal force to fight the Ikhwan and was able to destroy the militia with help from the religious establishment.
A similar thing occurred in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s as well as in Iraq in the 2000s. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Saudi-backed insurgents eventually went on to pursue a wider agenda, which included toppling the Saudi monarchy. Well aware of the risks, the Saudis know they need to better manage the deployment of militants. This awareness triggered the June 7 fatwa.
Obstacles to Control
Thus far the Saudis have lacked the robust institutional mechanisms that would enable them to maintain close supervision of their proxies. In the past, the Saudi intelligence service, the General Intelligence Presidency, was focused on deploying the assets, but it had no way of keeping them under control after deployment.
The Saudis do not have anything similar to the Iranians, whose Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and overseas operations arm of their elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), have taken a hands-on approach in managing their proxies. Saudi Arabia has either worked through other allied intelligence services, such as Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate in Afghanistan, or has had to rely on long-distance monitoring, as was the case in Iraq. Developing mechanisms such as those used by the IRGC-QF and MOIS would take a long time — something the Saudis do not have.
Complicating this situation is that in Syria, the Saudis will be up against Iranian intelligence and military forces with decades of experience. In addition to their own military assets and those of the Syrian state, the Iranians also have their premier proxy, the Lebanese Hezbollah, at their disposal. This is a formidable alignment of forces that will demand the employment of ideology and religion if the Saudis are to have any chance of overcoming it.
The Saudis' dilemma is that religiously inspired insurgents constitute the key weapon they can deploy to secure their national security interests, especially at a time when confidence in the U.S. ability to safeguard the kingdom has declined after what happened in Iraq and considering Washington's need to do business with Tehran. But as history has proved, the employment of jihad in the international realm is problematic for the Saudis. Thus far al-Saud has been able to clean up the mess after each initiative, but with the kingdom at a historic domestic impasse and with the Arab Spring and rising Iran in play, backing Syrian rebels could come back to haunt the kingdom.