The recent announcement by Saudi Arabia concerning its fighters in Syria is no mere detail to gloss over. It is a decidedly serious indicator of the extent of pressure exerted by the United States, including the threat to cancel the expected visit by President Barack Obama to the kingdom. Yet the story has another dimension: the return of Saudi fighters to their home country.
The Saudis are afraid of an uncontrolled return of those fighters to their country. Two conditions have been set. The first would be a return, under security precautions via the Saudi embassy in Turkey, as mentioned by the ambassador in Ankara on February 6. The second means their dispersal along the frontlines, a repeat of what Saudi fighters in Afghanistan experienced. The following is just some of what is known about the kingdom’s abandonment of its fighters in Syria.
Royal orders in Saudi Arabia are not issued except in the case of relieving an emir of his duties, appointing him to a position, or in relation to a sovereign issue requiring orders from the highest authority in the state. However, the royal orders issued on February 3 are a clear indicator that the subject of the royal decree surpasses the authority of the cabinet. It called for what can be described as a “written pledge” from the king himself.
Three issues could be construed from the royal orders:
First, the royal order was issued in the context of the media debate on the supposed visit by US President Barack Obama to Riyadh at the end of March. At the beginning of this month, US newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, published the news about the prospective visit. The US embassy in Riyadh quickly replied, saying the White House did not say anything of the sort. “The embassy did not have any information about the visit and cannot comment on it,” said the assistant media attaché at the US embassy Stewart White.
However, with the issuing of the royal decree on February 3, the White House immediately announced the visit by Obama to Riyadh at the end of next March. The royal order was the lengthiest in the history of such decrees, except for those related to the budget. In summary, it was a wholesale condemnation of terrorist acts in all their forms, where Saudi citizens were involved, whether civilians, military personnel, and preachers who agitate, belong, donate, or glorify religious or ideological extremists, calling for the most severe sentences against them.
According to available information, US officials presented the Saudis with a huge dossier at the end of last year. It contained irrefutable evidence proving the involvement of Saudi Arabia in terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and even Russia. The dossier was now in the hands of the international community, which could lead to a censure at the UN Security Council and the classification of Saudi Arabia as state sponsor of global terrorism.
The message was heard clearly by the Saudis. It meant that it is impossible to include terrorism in the protection and strategic defense treaty signed in the 1940s between Saudi King Abdul-Aziz and US President Franklin Roosevelt. The question of terrorism is an international issue and does not belong in bilateral agreements.
Saudi Arabia felt the threat, which required a quick position from the highest authority in the country. Some in the royal family understood it as a precondition for Obama’s visit to Riyadh in order to allay the concerns of US allies and the international community, who no longer doubt Saudi’s involvement in the majority of terrorist activities in the region and around the world.
Second, the royal orders were a clear message to Saudi fighters, civilians and military alike, principally in Syria, but also in Iraq, Lebanon, and other places. It meant that a harsh fate awaits them if they decided to come back home. To avoid the grim destiny and severe punishment, they had to remain outside the borders and continue their mission until they perish or get dispersed in other fighting arenas, much like the first contingent of Arab Afghan fighters and those who emerged in Iraq after 2003, in Lebanon after the Nahr al-Bared war at the end of 2007, and those currently in Syria following the agreement between Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan and former CIA chief David Petraeus in the summer of 2012.
There is no doubt that a royal decree of such severity is a stab in the back by the official sponsor, represented by Prince Bandar, whose mission was put to rest by the decision. Reactions by al-Qaeda supporters on social media sites indicate extensive anger against Saudi Arabia for deceiving the fighters, time after time, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Lebanon and now in Syria. Thus, many Saudi fighters and their supporters are beginning to see the royal decree as a provocative act. This might push the fighters to commit foolish security acts to foil its aims, tarnishing the image of the kingdom and reinforcing the impression that it supports terrorism.
Naturally, the Saudi regime could hide behind the pretext that it never supported the fighting abroad and did not allow the collection of donations or incitement to emigrate to join the jihad. On the surface, the excuse is valid. Many agitating preachers and mosque imams were subjected to investigations to stop the collection of donations for fighting in Syria, in addition to the issuing of fatwas, which considered fighting in Syria to be “sedition.”
On the other hand, observers have gathered overwhelming evidence about the complicity of Saudi political, media, and religious institutions in the emigration of thousands of Saudis to the “land of steadfastness” in Syria. Nothing else could explain the participation of hundreds of Saudi soldiers fighting there, despite being prohibited from traveling abroad, except by special orders of the military leadership.
The mention of military personnel and the severe punishment awaiting them was not by accident. It would not have happened without documented evidence about the participation of large numbers of military personnel in the fighting in Syria, who poured through Jordan under the patronage of Saudi Assistant Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, the half-brother of the godfather of the war in Syria Prince Bandar.
Saudi Arabia had mastered a double game. In public, it expressed a contrived strictness about the participation of Saudis in fighting abroad or collecting donations for al-Qaeda and its old and new subsidiaries. But in secret, money, men, and weapons were flooding the battlefields without any control.
The third issue concerns secondary indicators in the royal decree, which imply that the war in Syria was coming to an end and that armed groups are now on their own, after losing the required finances, arms, and training. This could only mean the end of the role of Prince Bandar, who left to the United States for a prolonged vacation, under the pretext of medical treatment.
This brings us to the Iranian-Turkish proposal, which provides the Saudis a decent exit from the Syrian quagmire, on the condition of gradually abandoning its support for the insurgents. It is clear that the two countries have begun a joint high-level coordination to confront the question of terrorism. After Ankara’s previous hesitation to give it serious consideration, according to the Iranian view, it is now beginning to give it the widest attention, after the recent visit by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Iran.
The outcome means that Saudi is fearful of the return of its fighters, so it came up with a list of harsh punishments to avoid the violent repercussions at the time of reckoning. Moreover, what is even more dangerous, from its perspective, would be international sanctions which await the kingdom if it does not withdraw from the war in Syria and funding terrorism on the international level. This has led European intelligence agencies to step up their presence in the region to follow-up on the return of Saudi citizens back to the kingdom.
It is necessary to draw attention to concessions made by Saudi Arabia to cast away the specter of accusations of supporting terrorism. During his most recent visit to Riyadh, US Secretary of State John Kerry described the position of the Saudi leadership concerning the Israeli-Palestinian settlement with intriguing words. He said he felt “strong enthusiasm” on its part in this regard, at a time when nothing existed for such an enthusiasm.
Here is where the information intersects: the terrorism file presented by the United States to their Saudi counterparts and the Palestinian-Israeli settlement dossier. Sources close to the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah said that Kerry had asked the head of the PNA, Mahmoud Abbas, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, in return for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This would be with the gradual abandonment of the principle of the right of return and reviving the implantation project on a large scale, where Arab countries, in addition to Australia and Canada, would absorb Palestinians.
Palestinian sources add that President Abbas was reluctant about announcing his approval without a cover by influential Arab countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia. Kerry reassured Abbas that he would be personally undertaking this task.
Is there a relationship between Kerry’s reassurances and the enthusiasm of King Abdullah? In general, the royal decree is a sign of a new stage.