Monday, 28 May 2012

Syrian opposition groups and Riyadh's influence

Syrian forces killed two people as crowds of 2,000-3,000 civilians protested in Yalda and Daraya near Damascus on May 27, Reuters reported. Protests erupted following the May 25 killing of 109 civilians in Houla, including many children, opposition activists said.

The deaths of the civilians occur at a time when the Syrian opposition movement is spreading into a new stage. This phase is encouraging many non-state actors from around the region to join the fighting, and is hinting at the involvement of powerful Saudi Arabian state intelligence agencies trying to direct the outcome of the Syrian uprising.

Burhan Ghalioun, the head of Syria's Western-backed front, said that he will resign when his replacement is found. Mr Ghalioun announced this just days after he was re-elected president of the Syrian National Council (SNC) for another three-month term.

His announcement is in response to perceived disunity among the opposition groups. Syrian opposition groups have never been united in their demonstrations against the al Assad regime, which is a recurring pattern seen elsewhere in Libya and Egypt as those governments faced civilian discontent last year.

There is significant apprehension among Syrian rebels that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is too much influence having on the rebellion. The Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is also concerning for the remaining Arab dictatorships and regimes. Saudi Arabia, the largest and wealthiest of these still-incumbent administrations, is working to marginalise the group’s political aspirations in the Levant and Middle East.

While the MB is itself a Sunni-dominated ideology that has developed into a potent political force, the Sunni oil-state of Saudi Arabia has been surprisingly negative towards it even though it officially recognises the group politically.

While the religious and ethnic similarities between the Saudis and the MB would seem to predict at least some rhetorical support, it is the ideological goals of the MB alarming the Saudis and retarding any reconciliation. This is because Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, and the republican fervour awakened by the MB throughout Arabia, North Africa, and the Levant is a direct threat to the continuation of Saudi palace rule.

Complicating this is that the Saudis are reportedly funding the delivery of weapons to other Syrian opposition groups. These groups are so split for political, ethnic, and religious reasons that it is difficult to predict where those funds and weapons might end up.

Because the Saudis distrust Sunni MB groups in Syria and their success in the rebellion potentially threatens Saudi interests in the whole region, the weapons will be supporting groups more closely aligned with Riyadh's goals.

Given the Saudi endorsement of a more Salafist form of Islamism at home (a move undertaken to quell the growing MB influence in Saudi Arabia), the weapons might find their way into the hands of Salafist groups. In some way, this funding is good news for external Syrian ex-pat supporters in places like Bern and Paris as it brings closer the possible fall of the al Assad regime.

These groups outside Syria are already looking towards a post-al Assad future. The Syrian National Council (SNC) presented an economic restructuring plan at a Friends of Syria meeting in the United Arab Emirates, Reuters reported May 24. Reconstruction for the first six months after the regime collapse would be about $US11.5 billion, an SNC representative said. This funding will be used primarily to support the nation's currency. The United Arab Emirates and Germany announced that they partnered to establish a reconstruction initiative in Syria and they pledged to provide $755,000 each, a German Foreign Ministry official said.

There are great risks in the SNC planning and the Saudi machinations in Syria. The SNC are relying on the collapse of the al Assad regime - an outcome that is far from assured - in order to move ahead.

There is very little planning for negotiating on the eventuality that Mr al Assad survives this unrest. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is confident he will succeed in the current turmoil, and so far appears to be holding out. But there are ways to forecast a threat to governments.

During an uprising inside a country, a key indicator of regime survival is the allegiance of the military. If military commanders rebel against their government, that regime will likely collapse. However a regime will probably survive if the generals believe their interests are better served by supporting the incumbent leaders.

The mostly Alawite (a minority group and Mr al Assad’s own ethnic identity) commanders of the Syrian military continue to indicate their support for Mr al Assad. Those troops who have defected are a mix of ethnic identities, but most do not appear to be Alawite. His government has lasted this long and its survival is not certain but the strong unity among the Syrian armed forces is portentous.

This threatens the SNC plans. Presuming the uprising will oust Mr al Assad from Damascus in the near term, and readying large sums earmarked for reconstruction after the regime is supposed to have already collapsed is a tenuous strategy for the SNC. But it is a plan the SNC leaders can at least frame as a clear goal, even if every rebel on the ground in Syria does not share their ideology.

The Saudi plans however, are not so definitive. Saudi support of Salafist Islamism in Syria may be strategically sound, given their distrust for all things Muslim Brotherhood at the moment. But the militarisation of opposition groups such as the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade, a group that has received vocal support from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaeda Prime (AQP), is a short term strategy at best and not the kind of historical Saudi funding venture we have come to expect.

Especially so geographically close to the Saudi Kingdom, a group with jihadist tendencies and proven operational competence (the group conducted the high-profile attacks on the Syrian intelligence headquarters on Nov 6, 2011) could very well eventually spread down and cause unrest in the Saudi Kingdom.

The Saudis are aware a MB-dominated opposition in Syria would continue to fan the flames of Islamic republicanism in the region. And of course the collapse of the Iranian-backed al Assad regime is a desired outcome.

But Saudi princes must tread a fine line to achieve these goals. The changes sweeping the Middle-East over the past 12-16 months were mostly bypassing the Saudi kingdom. Yet the Saudis cannot be so sure of this remaining the case in the future. With so many players in the region vying for influence, the end-game is unclear and may not be to their liking. The Saudi family, if it is to remain in power, are doing everything they can to manipulate which players fall and which are left standing.

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