Saudi Arabia’s stance on the Syrian Civil war:
Syria and Saudi Arabia have had turbulent relations since their establishment as sovereign states. Relations between the two states have deteriorated further due to major political and sectarian conflicts that occurred within the region. The Syrian civil war, in particular, ended all ties between Syria and Saudi Arabia since the Al-Saud regime demanded the Syrian government to be taken out of power. Subsequently, the Saudi regime closed their embassy in Damascus and expelled the Syrian ambassador in 2012. Since then, the royal monarch has been a prominent figure in regards to supporting the Syrian opposition. Though, non-governmental actors such as religious figures have been just as politically active in the conflict and have encouraged Sunni Muslims to fight alongside the Syrian opposition. Nonetheless,with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Saudi Arabian government has fallen victim to threats made by Al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, as he declared war against the al-Saud family and urged his advocates to start fighting against the Rawafid (Shiite Muslims) and the Royal monarch of Saudi Arabia. As a result, the royal family has used Saudi clerics as a shield against ISIS by urging them to end the call for jihad as well as stating that the crimes committed by the Islamic State go against the principles of Islam.
Saudi clerics against Assad
Throughout the Syrian civil war, it has been noted that some of the most prominent Islamic scholars and figures in Saudi Arabia have influenced the youth to participate in the Syrian civil war. A prime example of this would be Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, who is a Syrian Sheikh that has been residing in Saudi Arabia since the 1980’s. He started off by encouraging Sunni Muslims to rise against the Syrian government and to peacefully protest until democratic reforms are implemented within the country. His words of encouragement for the youth later shifted, as he became an active member in funding the terrorist group Jahbat al-Nusra, which is a terrorist organization that used to be apart of Al-Qaeda. Like Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, most clerics in Saudi Arabia wanted a transition of political power in Syria that represented the overwhelming Sunni majority.
Call for Jihad
The encouragement of peaceful protests in Syria soon shifted into becoming a holy Muslim war, as Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, a Sunni cleric residing in Qatar, called for all Sunni Muslims physically capable for jihad to fight in Syria. The initiation for jihad and swift change in political ideology was primarily due to the fall of the rebel-held city of Qusair. The Syrian government with the help of Hezbollah regained full control of the city, which weakened the Syrian oppositions military standing in Syria. As a result, Saudi Sheikhs proclaimed that the Syrian civil war is now a Sunni led rebellion against the Iranian backed Alawite ‘regime’ in Syria. Saudi religious leaders issued fatwas (religious orders) that encouraged Muslims to join the ‘holy war’ in Syria. Fatwas issued by Saudi scholar Sheikh Saleh- al Fawzan are noteworthy, as his fatwa requires the permission of legal guardians or parents of young Muslims that seek Jihad in Syria. Moreover, Sheikh Mohammad al-Arefe, known as the head figure for recruiting young Muslims, specifically Saudi Muslims, by indoctrinating them to fight against the Syrian Arab Army. The Syrian civil war changed from being an all-Syrian war to a war fought by foreigners and jihadists against the Syrian government.
The Al-Saud Shield
With the number of Jihadists rising in Syria, the Al-Saud family has began to worry that Saudi clerics behind the calls for action in Syria, such as encouraging Jihad, are stepping out of bound and as a result could potentially set Saudi Arabia’s security at risk. The royal family banned all forms of donation sites that helped fund the Syrian opposition, including those sites belonging to Saudi clerics. This ban exemplifies the Al-Saud’s distress that non-governmental affiliated clerics might use the Syrian crisis to critique the ruling family’s legitimacy by emphasizing its inactiveness in the face of Syria’s increasing bloodshed.
With the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Al-Saud family is now concerned over their collective security as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi threatened that the Al-Saud family will be in extreme danger. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s grand Mufti with the urgency of King Abdullah issued a new fatwa, which declared any acts of terrorism a “heinous crime” under sharia law. With the puissance of the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, the Al-Saud family created a self-security shield by using the power of religion to sway people from supporting the Islamic state. As stated by President Bashar al-Assad, “Terrorism is like a scorpion, it can bite you back anytime”, which is why King Abdullah urged all Saudi clerics to tell Muslims all over not to support the Islamic State out of fear that internal conflicts will break out in Saudi Arabia. To prevent any future attacks on their own land, Saudi Arabia is now more concerned with protecting their national sovereignty than finding ways to oust the Syrian government, doing so, they have created their own self-security shield.
Author Kristina Kousherian is a senior student majoring in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.