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Islamist threat at home forces Saudi rethink on Syria ‘Policy getting very counter-terrorism focused’

 RIYADH, Feb 11, (RTRS): After serving for years as the main conduit for weapons and cash to rebels battling Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia is shifting its policy to contain the spread of Islamist militancy at home, diplomats and figures close to the goverment say. Riyadh is concerned that radicalism among rebels in Syria will boost al-Qaeda at home in Saudi Arabia, which suffered a blowback last decade when fighters from the network of Osama bin Laden — himself a Saudi — returned from jihad in Afghanistan. Saudi leaders are still determined to help rebels bring down Assad, an ally of their main rival Iran, but their heightened focus on security at home suggests they may temper some of the effort.

In a striking sign of the change, King Abdullah last week issued a royal decree imposing prison terms of 3-20 years on Saudis who go abroad to fight. The change has also come at a moment when Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan — the architect of a Syria policy that has included training camps in Jordan and shipments of weapons and money — has lowered his public profile, diplomatic sources in the Gulf say. “Their Syria policy is getting very counter-terrorism focused,” said a senior diplomatic source in the Gulf. “The Interior Ministry in particular is very worried about what’s happening in Syria, as they should be,” he added.

Powerful Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef led the crushing of an al-Qaeda uprising in the kingdom in the last decade by Saudis who returned from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He later survived an assassination attempt by the group. “What happened in Syria is really causing problems for us,” said Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq, head of the Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate, which monitors online radicalism. He estimated there were between 1,000-2,000 Saudis in Syria, including both fighters and people distributing charity to refugees, and said he believed most were in groups aligned with al-Qaeda. Although Riyadh has discouraged its citizens from going to Syria, it was not until last week’s royal decree that it made it explicitly illegal and clarified that those who did go faced tough penalties.

While the sources who spoke to Reuters for this report were not able to say with certainty in what way Riyadh will alter its systematic support for rebels under the policy engineered by Prince Bandar, they said senior figures in Riyadh increasingly worry that toppling Assad will take longer than they hoped. Meanwhile, radical groups in Syria have been getting stronger at the expense of mainstream groups that have been the main recipients of Saudi military and financial aid, training and logistical support. Assad’s position has also solidified in the past year. The failure to build a rebel force that can defeat Assad is partly due to logistical difficulties in working with many disparate groups spread across the country, but it is also because the strongest rebel factions are linked to al-Qaeda.

The change in emphasis could present an opportunity to realign Syria policy more closely with Washington, after Riyadh fell out with its superpower ally last year, accusing the administration of Barack Obama of foresaking Syria’s rebels. Obama is due to visit Saudi Arabia in March. “The Saudis have to prepare a clear vision on what’s happening in Syria and on what they want in Syria. Counter terrorism plays a big role in American thinking, and in Saudi thinking,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Centre, based in Jeddah and Geneva. Prince Mohammed, the interior minister, enjoys close relations with US security officials, shares their concerns about Islamist militants, and met Central Intelligence Agency head John Brennan in Washington on Monday. Riyadh and Washington argued last year over Syria after Obama decided against bombing Assad following a poison gas attack in Damascus, a decision Saudi leaders feared would encourage Iran to take a more open role in the conflict.

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