By J.E. Dyer
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 …read more