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2 Years After Invasion to Crush Uprising in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia Helps Fuel Conflict in Syria

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As we continue our coverage of the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, freelance foreign correspondent Reese Erlich joins us to discuss Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Two years after leading a Gulf intervention force to crush the protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia is playing an increasing role in Syria, allowing the supply of arms and even the infiltration of militants to help the rebels’ fight. Erlich, who has just returned after 10 days in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, says the Saudi monarchy is involved in arming “the most ultraconservative, ultrareligious” Syrian rebel groups in the hopes that a pro-Saudi government will emerge. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As we continue our coverage of the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, I want to bring Reese Erlich into the conversation. Reese is a freelance foreign correspondent who’s reported from Syria on several occasions. He has just returned from 10 days in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I want to play a clip of his report for NPR on Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

REESE ERLICH: A crowd of men walked slowly out of a working-class mosque after Friday prayers. The mosque’s imam has just asked everyone to pray for the Syrian rebels. Worshiper Taher Mohammad wants to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.

TAHER MOHAMMAD: Bashar, his army is making all kind of crime. Yes, of course, I support the revolution.

REESE ERLICH: Mohammad says he also supports Saudis going to fight in Syria. Dozens of Facebook pages memorialize Saudis killed in Syria. Late last year, a judge in one Saudi city told young anti-government protesters that they should be fighting jihad in Syria, not demonstrating at home. Reached by phone, Abdurrahman al-Talq, father of one of the defendants, recalls what the judge said.

ABDURRAHMAN AL-TALQ: [translated] The judge said, “You should save all your energy and fight against the real enemy, the Shia Muslims in Syria, and not fight inside Saudi Arabia.”

REESE ERLICH: Within weeks, 11 of the 19 defendants left to join the rebels. In December last year, al-Talq’s son was killed in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Reese Erlich’s report on NPR from Saudi Arabia. He joins us now from San Francisco. And still with us in studio is Rim Turkmani, a member of the Syrian Civil Democratic Alliance, meeting in New York at the United Nations with various staffs of Security Council members discussing possible political solutions to the situation in Syria. Reese, you’re just back from Syria—from Saudi Arabia. Tell us what you found.

REESE ERLICH: Well, I was there on assignment for NPR and for GlobalPost. What I found was that the—excuse me—the Saudi government and wealthy Saudis are involved in arming Syrian rebels, the most ultraconservative, ultrareligious groups, such as al-Nusra, and that hundreds of Saudis are infiltrating across the borders from Jordan and Turkey and going to fight with these extremist groups in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Saudia Arabia’s interest?

REESE ERLICH: Well, the Saudis want to see a pro-Saudi government emerge. The analysts I spoke to in Saudi Arabia point to what they call the Yemen model, where there was an Arab Spring uprising, the head of the government was replaced, but a pro-Western, pro-Saudi general replaced the old guy. So, they’d love to see that happen in Syria. But as my sources pointed out, it’s not going to happen, because Syria is very, very different from Yemen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rim, your reaction in terms of the historic relationships between Saudi Arabia and Syria?

RIM TURKMANI: As we all know, Saudi Arabia is not a democratic country. The uprising started to reach a democratic Syria. So, I don’t have faith in any undemocratic country to support democratic transition inside Syria. I’m not surprised that they’re supporting the armed rebels and increasing the level of violence in Syria. However, we are very confident that violence never, ever leads to democracy. So, as much as I oppose the regime, my group opposes the regime, we oppose also these efforts from Saudi Arabia to turn Syria into a jihadi land. I mean, the Syrians are—their mentality is very, very different from like the jihadi extreme Muslims’ mentality, and I think they will find it very difficult to market their ideas inside Syria. However, the violence is giving them the right environment, fertile environment, for such ideology to spread.

I fear that these efforts are damaging the relationship between the Saudi and the Syrian people. I mean, many Syrians now inside Syria, let’s say, especially in the more stable parts, feel very strongly about the Saudi approach and support extremism. It’s even in the media. I mean, they host many sectarian media stations, and they keep repeating, you know, as we heard, “This is a Shia-against-Sunni war, and we have to win it.” And, you know, we—I’m a Syrian. I grew up in Syria. I didn’t know my sect until I was 20 years old, and it’s never been an issue for us. The people who demonstrated two years ago, they did not demonstrate because they are Sunni or Shia. So, their efforts to turn this into a Shia-Sunnni confrontation are certainly not welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, explained his country’s position on Syria. He was speaking in Riyadh at a joint news conference following talks with Secretary of State John Kerry.

PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL: As to providing enough aid and security for the Syrians, Saudi Arabia will do everything within its capabilities to help in this. We do believe that what is happening in Syria is a slaughter, a slaughter of innocent people. And we just can’t bring ourselves to remain quiet in front of this carnage.

AMY GOODMAN: “We cannot bring ourselves to remain silent—quiet in front of this carnage.” Reese Erlich, your response?

REESE ERLICH: Well, it’s rather hypocritical. Saudi Arabia sent troops to repress the carnage going on in Bahrain a year—well, now two years ago. Saudi Arabia has its political, economic, military interests in the region. It supports the repressive monarchies. It doesn’t like the al-Assad regime, but it got along perfectly well with the Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships. So, to say the least, Saudi Arabian officials are being hypocritical.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Reese, in terms of the—well, earlier—in terms of the other countries in the region and their attitude toward support for the Syrian resistance, what’s your sense of other countries and their particular interests, other than Saudi Arabia?

REESE ERLICH: Well, Turkey, of course, has been a very strong supporter. Most of—I’ve not traveled to almost all the countries that have undergone Arab Spring uprisings over the last year or two. And the—Syria still remains a popular uprising, despite all the very serious problems that the country is going through. And people do support popular uprisings. What I think people—I think the exception would be Iran, which has heavily backed Assad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has heavily backed Assad. But with those exceptions, there is not a lot of support for the Assad government. And, you know, people—what’s happened is, the longer the uprising has taken place and the harsher the repression from Assad, the more foreign powers have gotten involved, each trying to get their guy into power.

And in the case of the U.S., the U.S.—you know, the debate in the U.S. is whether—well, shall we bomb them? Shall we create a no-fly zone and arm the rebels and take a more militant stand? Or shall we continue kind of the Obama policies of secretly arming the—and covertly arming and training the guerrillas? The problem is, the reason this has not been resolved, as pointed out to me by a Muslim Brotherhood leader that I interviewed in Istanbul, is that the U.S. hasn’t found a leader that it can trust to pursue its interests. If you recall, in the case of Iraq or Afghanistan, there was a guy the U.S. promoted as the new democrat, supposedly, who turned out to be otherwise. But they haven’t found that guy yet in Syria, and that’s one of the reasons that they’re taking a less than militant stand in support of the Syrian rebels.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play another clip from your report on NPR that features Mohammed al-Qahtani, the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. On Saturday, al-Qahtani was sentenced at least to 10 years in prison for offenses that included sedition and giving inaccurate information to foreign media.

REESE ERLICH: At a human rights meeting in Riyadh, participants discuss Saudi involvement in Syria. Mohammed al-Qahtani, an activist and professor at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies, says the judge’s remarks reflect a government effort to undercut domestic protest.

MOHAMMED AL-QAHTANI: Diffuse the pressure, domestic pressure, by recruiting young kids to go and join another proxy war in the region.

REESE ERLICH: Don’t participate in an Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia; go to Syria and do it there?

MOHAMMED AL-QAHTANI: Oh, that’s exactly the case.

REESE ERLICH: Qahtani says most of the youth join ultraconservative rebel groups such as the al-Nusra Front. The U.S. State Department has designated al-Nusra a terrorist organization.

MOHAMMED AL-QAHTANI: Make no mistake, these folks definitely are against democracy and human rights, and so on and so forth. So you have to be really careful because it could backfire. The ramifications could be quite serious in the whole region.

MAJ. GEN. MANSOUR AL-TURKI: Saudi Arabia does not allow any Saudis to get involved in any other internal affairs. It’s illegal.

REESE ERLICH: Major General Mansour al-Turki is spokesperson for the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

MAJ. GEN. MANSOUR AL-TURKI: Anybody who wants to travel actually outside Saudi Arabia in order to get involved in such conflict, he will be arrested and prosecuted. But only if we have the evidence before actually he leave the country.

REESE ERLICH: Critics say the government doesn’t try very hard to find such evidence. Professor Qahtani says meddling in the Syrian civil war hurts the entire region.

MOHAMMED AL-QAHTANI: Once foreigners are involved, there’s going to be mercenaries leading the war. It could give excuse, if you will, for the Syria regime, that these are foreign mercenaries fighting, which is a wrong policy to do.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Professor Mohammed al-Qahtani. Since you interviewed him, Reese Erlich, in Saudi Arabia, he was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison for charges that include sedition and giving inaccurate information to foreign media. Can you talk about the point he made and his case? And was he imprisoned for what he had to say, his criticism of Saudi Arabia supporting fighters in Syria?

REESE ERLICH: Yeah, he was one of the main researchers in Saudi Arabia looking into that question. I attended a Monday night seminar, if you will, of human rights activists, where he delivered a talk on exactly that topic. He has been under arrest and out of jail and in jail for a while. It’s hard to know, in the opaque Saudi judicial system, exactly what you’re charged with or what you’re convicted of, other than these vague charges about spreading false information to the international media and so on. He speaks a lot to—not only to me, but to other foreign reporters. And their sentencing him to jail is an effort to stop that information flow. It’s outrageous. He was doing nothing more than what an analyst would do in the United States, from studying a question, looking into it, and providing information to reporters. It’s just a sign of how repressive the U.S. ally Saudi Arabia is.

On the substance of it, he has pointed out that the—there is continuing unrest inside Saudi Arabia. It’s not as widespread as it is in other countries, but it’s there, particularly in the Eastern Province, which is mostly Shia. There’s regular demonstrations taking place. And the government seeks to divert that popular discontent by telling people, “Well, don’t fight here; go to Syria. That’s where you can really carry out jihad.” And some people go for it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rim Turkmani, the influence of these jihadi fighters from abroad into the civil war in Syria? You’ve got the jihadist armed rebels, you’ve got the secular armed rebels, and then you’ve got the nonviolent resistance, democratic resistance, that you present. On the ground, what does it mean? I mean, there’s some areas where reports of sharia courts have already been set up in rebel-held areas. And the impact of that on the existing institutions of Syrian society?

RIM TURKMANI: Indeed. Right now, internationally, the tendency is—is that everybody is talking about a political solution. And you heard even the U.K. and the U.S., even though they’re supporting a little bit the arming, they’re still talking about a political solution. A political solution means that we have to talk to all these armed people, all the armed groups, and bring them to a negotiation table. I trust we can bring the Syrians. We can bring those who defected from the army or those who thought they were carrying arm to defend their families. However, the jihadists are going to be impossible. They are going to be the real obstacle to any peace process in Syria. Their cause is global. It’s not for democracy, certainly. Even if the regime falls tonight, they’re going to continue their fight. They are not interested in any negotiations and any peace deal. And their threat is not going to be contained inside Syria. It’s certainly going to affect the whole region. This is why we have to act very quickly to end this war and bring together a peaceful solution for all the Syrians. It has to be all-inclusive, to bring all the Syrians into a negotiation table to reach a peaceful solution towards a democratic Syria. We’re not interested in any project that doesn’t lead eventually to a democratic country.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Reese Erlich, just to shift gears a bit, you also visited Bahrain. And on this second anniversary of the Saudi invasion of Bahrain, sending in troops there, can you talk about the situation right now?

REESE ERLICH: Sure. Bahrain is now the longest-running Arab Spring uprising of the entire region. The demonstrations started in March of 2011 and were brutally put down by the monarchy there, and ultimately had to do it with the support of Saudi troops and troops from a few other Gulf nations. But that hasn’t stopped the demonstrations. When I was there on March 14th, they had a huge demonstration, or a couple of demonstrations, to mark the anniversary of the uprising.

It’s basically a movement for democratic rights, for—it’s not even a movement for the overthrow of the monarchy. The traditional opposition, which at least at the moment has the strongest support, is willing to work with the monarchy. They just want fair elections, a parliament that does something. But the king can still keep many of his powers.

In conflict with the traditional leadership is a younger, more militant movement that calls for the overthrow of the monarchy, establishing of a parliamentary system, and some of those young people have been turning to throwing Molotovs and other more militant tactics. They’re not the majority, but they’re gaining in support as long as the monarchy continues to repress all or any kind of demonstrations, whether peaceful or otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Reese Erlich, we want to thank you for joining us from San Francisco, just back from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

REESE ERLICH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And I also want to thank Rim Turkmani for being with us, a member of the Syrian Civil Democratic Alliance, here in New York meeting with Security Council members and staff, discussing possible political solutions to the situation in Syria. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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