Following a circuitous route from Saudi Arabia up through Turkey or Jordan and then crossing a lawless border, hundreds of young Saudis are secretly making their way into Syria to join groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, GlobalPost 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, more than 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 for Near East Policy.
"Most of the foreigners are fighting with 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 Saudis hope to weaken their regional competitor Iran, a Shiite 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 Fahad 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."
Road To Syria
In one documented case, a Saudi judge encouraged young anti-government protesters to fight in Syria rather than face punishment at home. Mohammed al-Talq, 22, 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 Shiite 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.
Saudi Arabia shares no border with Syria, so young fighters such as Mohammed must travel through Turkey or Jordan.
Those without criminal records can fly as tourists to Istanbul. Those convicted of crimes or on government watch lists cannot travel without official Ministry of Interior permission. Critics say the government allows such militants to depart with a wink and a nod. Then they sneak across the Jordanian border into southern Syria.
The young militants are sometimes funded by rich Saudis. They acquire black market AK-47s and cross at night along the now porous Syrian borders, according to a local journalist.
Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym of an exiled Syrian journalist who regularly reports from inside the country, has carefully observed the flow of the Saudi fighters to Syria. He told GlobalPost that groups of three to five Saudis often join Jabhat al-Nusra, a prominent rebel faction the United States says has links to al-Qaida.
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. But they 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 spokesman 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."
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."
Parallels To Afghanistan
Al-Qahtani argues that Saudi support for al-Nusra resembles their aid to the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But he notes that the 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 U.S. officials and analysts argue that the Saudi government doesn't arm extremist groups at all, having been chastened by the Afghan experience. 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."
Randa Slim, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the Saudi royal family doesn't want a repeat of terrorist fighting on its own soil, nor does it want to anger its chief ally, the United States.
"To avoid U.S. ire, they can have individuals fund al-Nusra while the government funds groups vetted by the U.S.," she said. "The Saudis are outsourcing the fight."
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 reports from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are part of a GlobalPost Special Report on the role of the Sunni/Shiite rift in Middle Eastern geopolitics, in partnership with NPR.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, hundreds of young men from Saudi Arabia are sneaking into Syria to fight against the Assad dictatorship. Saudi authorities provide funds and arms to Syrian rebels, although they deny sending fighters.
Independent producer Reese Erlich traced those fighters back to the Saudi Arabia.
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REESE ERLICH, BYLINE: A crowd of men walk slowly out of a working-class mosque after Friday prayers. The Mosques' imam has just asked everyone to pray for the Syrian rebels. Worshipper Taher Mohammad wants to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad.
TAHER MOHAMMAD: Bashar, his army is making all kinds of crime. Yes, of course, I support the revolution.
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: (Through Translator) 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.
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.
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ERLICH: At a human rights meeting in Riyadh, participants discuss Saudi involvement in Syria. Mohammad 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.
MOHAMMAD AL-QAHTANI: Diffuse the pressure, the domestic pressure, by recruiting young kids to go and join another proxy war in the region.
ERLICH: Don't participate in the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia. Go to Syria and do it there?
AL-QAHTANI: Oh, that's exactly the case.
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.
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.
MAJOR GENERAL MANSOUR AL-TURKI: Saudi Arabia does not allow any Saudis to get involved in any other internal affairs. It's illegal.
ERLICH: Major General Mansour al-Turki is spokesperson for the Saudi Ministry of Interior.
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.
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.
AL-QAHTANI: Once foreigners are involved there are going to be mercenaries leading the war. It could give an excuse, if you will, for the Syrian regime that these are foreigner mercenaries fighting, which is a wrong policy to do.
ERLICH: Last week, Qahtani's outspoken criticism of Saudi authorities led to his arrest and sentencing to 10 years in prison for sedition. Amnesty International denounced the arrest and called him a prisoner of conscience.
For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.
INSKEEP: And, by the way, Reese Erlich's reporting from Saudi Arabia is part of a partnership between NPR and the GlobalPost.
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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.