Mohammed Morsi’s call for holy war in Syria spooked the Egyptian military, and it alarmed the Saudis too. I suspect it even played a role in the decision of Qatar’s new emir to depose his father (long a supporter of Morsi and promoter of Islamist influence in the Arab Spring nations) at the end of June. The new Sheikh Tamim has moved quickly to shift some of his father’s key policies, and we are likely to see more solidarity between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks – but with the Saudis now edging into the lead.
As Qatar’s profile changes, there will be a significant shift in the dynamics of Islamism, one of whose best-organized factions (Qaradawi and his International Union of Muslim Scholars) has had a reliable source of funding and tacit national support from the oil-rich emirate. There will be blowback within Qatar, of course; the new emir will have to tack and trim to discourage the kind of protests and terror attacks that now routinely menace neighboring countries like Iraq, Bahrain, and Jordan. As Turkey’s Islamist minister to the EU, Egemen Bagis, warns us, Islamism is here to stay. (Bagis is the Turkish minister who threatened Angela Merkel in June with an “inauspicious end” and “severe retaliation,” if a resumption of Turkey’s EU negotiations were blocked because of the Erdogan government’s recent response to protesters.)
But as the drama unfolds, factions will bob upward and downward – and that appears to be what is happening with the Syria problem this weekend. For now, Morsi is out, as a rallying leader for Islamists in Syria; Qatar, a key backer of Syrian factions, has backed out of her incipient partnership with Morsi; the U.S., as ever under our current president, is simply inert; and the Saudis are now left with the major influence over the organized rebels – at least the ones not overtly affiliated with al-Qaeda.
This explains the decision of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) on Saturday to choose as its new head a Saudi-backed candidate, Ahmad al-Jarba. The Saudis have been putting a lot into Syria, meeting with rebel representatives for the first time in May 2013 and increasing their sponsorship even beyond the level of Qatar’s. A week ago, the Saudis made an urgent appeal to members of the EU to arm the rebels. Riyadh’s growing role, and the rapid timeline since Morsi’s ouster, suggest that the SOC election on Saturday was shaped at least in part by Saudi advice.
With the threat of the Morsi faction beaten back for the moment, and the Russia-U.S. talks initiative going nowhere, the Saudis and at least some of the rebel coalition probably see an opportunity in the current situation. The opportunity is likely to be fleeting, especially considering the presence of the newly formed al-Qaeda group in Syria, “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” or ISIS, which is trying to take over rebel-held territory in northern Syria, leaving a trail of bodies and severed heads in its wake. Repackaging the SOC with Saudi-backed leadership will be reassuring (and perhaps unifying) to at least some Syrians, at a time when rebel leaders – reeling from recent gains by Assad’s forces – see windows closing on what could be big payoffs.
We must not mistake any of these developments for a certain guide to the eventual outcome, in Syria or even in Egypt. But they do follow a predictable pattern. Aspiring regional leaders are jockeying for influence.
If I had to outline what I think the Saudis are doing, I would put it this way: they were energized to urgent action by Morsi’s holy war speech on the 15th, and probably by the unwholesome specter of U.S. support to it implied by the Sheikh Abdullah bin-Bayyah White House visit two days before, which resulted in Obama’s promise of arms for the Syrian rebels. That visit got much more press in Arabic media than it did in the West. The Saudis are anxious to prevent a takeover of Syria by Muslim Brotherhood-backed salafists, who hate the Saudi regime.
Indeed, the Saudis’ influence, either direct or indirect, may have been a key factor in inducing the new emir to take over in Qatar. The change of leadership there has, virtually overnight, neutralized Qatar as a factor in Syria and Egypt.
The Saudis might well suppose that they can make a new Syrian regime acceptable to Russia by making its leadership beholden to Riyadh. Moscow would be more willing to give up Assad for a new, non-radical regime – one that would protect Christians and host a Russian port – than to see the Muslim Brotherhood take over Syria. What the Saudis need to find is the ploy that can split Russia’s and Iran’s common interest in Syria. Russia would be willing, as Iran is not, to throw Assad and Hezbollah under the bus. An increase in repressive Islamism in Turkey could encourage Moscow to favor whatever option will keep Russia’s hand in Syria.
But the putatively “moderate,” Saudi-backed rebel coalition must be presented to Russia as a fait accompli. Russia won’t help in the creation of this alternative (especially not with Assad gaining territory back) – and the U.S. under Obama is no longer a responsible factor in the mix. So the Saudis went to the EU looking for partners in arming the rebels on Saudi terms.
There is definitely a ticking clock on any strategy to position the rebels to take over a “moderate” unity government. If Russia and the U.S. actually get talks started, the window could close on alternative options very quickly. What would begin is a circle dance around the talks, with the parties all reorienting themselves in relation to it. The Saudis, like anyone else, will calculate that the U.S. position will lose in the negotiations.
Events in Egypt, meanwhile – or even in Turkey or Iraq – could prejudice the outcome in Syria, in ways that will shift from one day to the next. Likewise, the al-Qaeda terrorists chasing the rebels in northern Syria represent an “X” factor, with the potential to change conditions rapidly.
How these dynamics will all play out is a good question. Morsi’s supporters will not go quietly in Egypt. (Besides shooting up neighborhoods in Cairo, they are busy killing teenagers by flinging them from buildings, and issuing threats to blow up Egypt and set their Christian neighbors’ homes on fire.) The Egyptian military has the power to mop up the Islamists in a civil war – if it will fight to win, and if the Islamists themselves allow the fight to be framed in military terms. It is notoriously hard to meet those conditions in a civil war. If a period of protracted civil unrest drags on in Egypt, the nation will become a great prize, like Syria, over which the various factions of “World War IV” will fight.
From the radical Islamists’ perspective, they and their cause thrive in conditions of misery and social chaos. The Saudis come from a different perspective, one that takes a longer view of jihad against the West and the subjugation of Israel. In Egypt, they have elected to back the military as a moderating force. But that force will henceforth be under perpetual assault: responsible for, but by no means in control of, everything bad that happens in the country.
In Syria, the Saudis are making a bold play, one that, if successful, would present an alternative to the state-Islamist ideas modeled by Iran and Turkey. To the extent that Morsi is out and Qatar is neutralized, the Saudis are relatively empowered for their bid. But Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda are still there, and so is the Muslim Brotherhood, even without its charismatic favorite son in power in Egypt. It won’t have any trouble writing a new strategic narrative for Syria that doesn’t depend on Morsi or Egypt – assuming it chooses to.
Meanwhile, what would have seemed remarkable five years ago is barely worth comment now: the Saudis’ big move has been made against the direction of U.S. policy, in the secure knowledge that that won’t matter. The Pax Americana is over.