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Syria Feature: "Hundreds" of Saudis --- and Lots of Money --- for the Insurgency (Erlich)

Footage of a Saudi fighter in Syria

Reese Erlich writes for Global Post:

Following a circuitous route from here up through Turkey or Jordan and then crossing a lawless border, hundreds of young Saudis are secretly making their way into Syria to join extremist groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Global Post has learned.

With the tacit approval from the House of Saud, and financial support from wealthy Saudi elites, the young men take up arms in what Saudi clerics have called a “jihad,” or “holy war” against the Assad regime.

Based on a month of reporting in the region and in Washington, over a dozen sources have confirmed that wealthy Saudis, as well as the government, are arming some Syrian rebel groups. Saudi and Syrian sources confirm that hundreds of Saudis are joining the rebels, but the government denies any sponsoring role.

The Saudis are part of an inflow of Sunni fighters from Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan, according to Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

“Most of the foreigners are fighting with [Jabhat] al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham,” both extremist groups, Zelin said.

Sunni extremist fighters are now part of a vicious civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people and created more than a million refugees. The fighters are also part of a larger struggle in a region in which opportunistic leaders stoke the age-old rift between the Sunni and Shia in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia itself.

The Saudis hope to weaken their regional competitor Iran, a Shia theocracy that is backing Assad. Saudi officials also hope to divert simmering political unrest at home by encouraging young protesters to instead fight in Syria, according to Saudi government critics.

The government seeks to “diffuse domestic pressure by recruiting young kids to join in another proxy war in the region,” said Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani, a human rights activist and economics professor at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Riyadh. They are joining ultraconservative groups who “definitely are against democracy and human rights. The ramifications could be quite serious in the whole region.”

In one documented case, a Saudi judge encouraged young anti-government protesters to fight in Syria rather than face punishment at home. Twenty-two year old Mohammed al-Talq was arrested and found guilty of participating in a demonstration in the north-central Saudi city of Buraidah.

After giving 19 young men suspended sentences, the judge called the defendants into his private chambers and gave them a long lecture about the need to fight Shia Muslims in Syria, according to Mohammed’s father, Abdurrahman al-Talq.

“You should save all your energy and fight against the real enemy, the Shia, and not fight inside Saudi Arabia,” said the father, quoting the judge. “The judge gave them a reason to go to Syria.”

Within weeks, 11 of the 19 protesters left to join the rebels. In December 2012, Mohammed al-Talq was killed in Syria. His father filed a formal complaint against the judge late last year, but said he has received no response.

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