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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

Saudi youth fighting against Assad regime in Syria

GlobalPost has learned that hundreds of young Saudis are flocking to Syria in a 'holy war' against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

of the most effective fighting groups, as well as its efforts to provide aid to average Syrians, has won over some in the opposition.

Many Syrians “like the fact that Saudis come with a lot of money,” Hamwi said. “Civil society activists do not like foreign fighters. They think they will cause more trouble.”

The term “civil society activists” refers to the largely secular, progressive Syrians who led the initial stage of the Syrian uprising but who have since been eclipsed by the armed militias.

Saudi officials deny that the government encourages youth to fight in Syria. They point to a religious decree (fatwa) issued by Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheikh. He urged youth not to fight in Syria, noting that aid to rebels should be sent through “regular channels.”

But Saudi authorities also admit they have no control over people who legally leave the country and later join the rebels.

Fighting with the rebels in Syria is illegal, declared Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior. “Anybody who wants to travel outside Saudi Arabia in order to get involved in such conflict will be arrested and prosecuted,” he said. “But only if we have the evidence before he leaves the country.”

That position gives the Saudi government plausible deniability, according to Randa Slim, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. The Saudi government purges the country of young troublemakers while undermining a hostile neighbor, she said. “In the name of a good cause, they are getting rid of a problem.”

Human rights activist al-Qahtani called the Saudi stand a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” Saudi authorities have a strategic goal in Syria, he said.

“Their ultimate policy is to have a regime change similar to what happened in Yemen, where they lose the head of state and substitute it with one more friendly to the Saudis,” al-Qahtani said. “But Syria is quite different. It will never happen that way.”

Last week, a Saudi Court sentenced al-Qahtani to 10 years in prison for sedition and providing false information to foreign media. Human rights groups immediately defended al-Qahtani, saying he is being persecuted for his political views and human rights work. 

Meanwhile, evidence mounts that Saudis are pouring into Syria.

Last year a close friend of Abdulaziz Alghufili bought a Kalashnikov rifle and slipped into Syria to join an extremist militia fighting the Assad regime. “My friend is putting his life at risk,” said Alghufili, an electrical engineer not involved in his friend’s activities.

So far his friend remains alive. But dozens of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds document the deaths of other Saudis not so fortunate. Almost all joined the al-Nusra Front.

“Most people going there don’t think they will come back,” Alghufili said. “They will fight to die or win freedom.”

The Muslim Brotherhood maintains the most support among rebel fighters, but has recently met strong competition from extremists, including al-Nusra, which supports the establishment of an Islamist state and a harsh version of Sharia law in Syria.

Al-Qahtani argues that Saudi support for al-Nusra resembles their aid to the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Back then Osama bin Laden was a scion of a Saudi construction magnate who transferred his inherited wealth out of Saudi Arabia and into what came to be called “The Base,” English for Al Qaeda. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia encouraged the flow of Arab fighters and arms to the Afghans, part of a proxy war against the Soviets.

Saudi authorities set up networks to support the mujahedeen. “They recruited kids to fight there,” al-Qahtani said. “They financed them and provided them with [airplane] tickets.”

In the 1980s, the CIA and Saudis backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ultraconservative Islamic extremist because his group was the best organized and most anti-communist, although it lacked popular support. After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Hekmatyar switched sides and today is fighting the United States and NATO.

The Saudi government faced a similar problem with its former clients. When the Soviet backed regime fell and the fighters returned to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, some engaged in terrorist bombings and assassinations in an unsuccessful effort to overthrow the government. A nascent form of Al Qaeda began to take shape, metastasizing throughout the region and eventually lining up against the Saudi and US governments.

Al-Qahtani notes that the current support for Syrian rebels falls well below the massive effort in Afghanistan, in part because the Obama administration has tamped down Saudi efforts, worried about the growth of extremist groups.

Some US officials and analysts argue that the Saudi government doesn’t arm extremist groups at all, having been chastened by the Afghan experience. According to their view, the Saudi government and al-Nusra ideologically oppose one another and compete for the same, conservative political base in the region.

A State Department official described Saudi Arabia as an opponent of Syrian extremist groups. “The Saudi government and Arab League share the same concerns about Nusra,” he said. “Nobody wants instability.”

The Washington Institute’s Zelin agrees.

“All the funding for such groups comes from private sources,” Zelin said. “The Saudis learned the lessons of Afghanistan in 1980s.”

The Middle East Institute’s Slim sees truth in both arguments.

The Saudi royal family certainly doesn’t want a repeat of terrorist fighting on its own soil, nor does it want to anger its chief ally, the United States, Slim said.

“To avoid US ire, they can have individuals fund al-Nusra while the government funds groups vetted by the US,” she said. ”The Saudis are outsourcing the fight.”

Officially, the Obama administration offers political support to the Syrian rebels and provides only “humanitarian” aid in the form of communications equipment, food and medical supplies. The British provide humanitarian supplies that may include body armor and night vision goggles.

But the CIA has also facilitated covert military aid since at least the middle of 2012. The CIA sent operatives to southern Turkey to vet various factions of the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group encompassing most of the local militias fighting Assad. Those fighters who passed muster received arms from Saudi Arabia and the gulf emirate of Qatar, according to the New York Times

In May 2012, a Saudi- and Qatar-financed shipment of small arms landed in Turkey and was trucked to the Syrian border without interference from Turkish authorities. The shipment included AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and small-caliber machine guns. In 2013, CIA sources admitted that the agency is training Syria rebels in Jordan. 

The US initially helped supply militias led by the Muslim Brotherhood, but later soured on the Brotherhood and sought to arm other groups more in agreement with US policy, according to Brotherhood leaders.

Officially, the Obama administration is proceeding cautiously to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of extremist groups like al-Nusra. Syrian opposition leaders say, in reality, the United States is being parsimonious with aid because it hasn’t found rebel leaders it can trust.

"The Americans haven’t supported the revolution strongly enough because they are still looking for someone who can ensure their interests in the future," Omar Mushaweh, a spokesman for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood living in Istanbul, said last year.

The activities of Saudi Arabia — along with Turkey, Qatar, Iran and the United States — have significantly complicated the Syrian civil war, according to Saudi human rights activists.

“The people of Syria want their revolution to be as clean as possible,” al-Qahtani said. “Once foreigners are involved, it could lead to the situation of Afghanistan. It could give an excuse for the Syrian regime that it is foreigners who are fighting, which is a wrong policy.”

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich’s reporting on the Sunni/Shia rift is presented in partnership with NPR.