Many reading the news over the past few weeks may have given up on trying to
understand what is going on. Is the fall of president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt
affecting the Syrian war, and are Syrian events influencing the terrorist groups
regionally? Why do the Saudis support the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, but not
in Egypt? Is the Syrian war driving Sunni and Shi’ite terrorists together or
There are no easy answers to these questions, because clear patterns of
behavior are not constant throughout the region as states, tribes and movements
look out for their interests even though at times they seem to go against their
ideology or usual behavior.
While Morsi was supportive of the
Sunni-dominated Syrian rebels, the new leadership headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah
al-Sisi seems to be more supportive of the status quo, showing support for
Syrian President Bashar Assad. Evidence of this was the restoration of
diplomatic ties soon after Sisi removed Morsi from power; Morsi’s government had cut off
all ties with Syria in June.
In addition, the coup in Egypt represented a
regional road bump on the road to the Arab Spring (or Arab winter) and the rise
of Islamists. The current end of the Brotherhood dream in Egypt gave a jolt of
confidence to Assad and other regional dictators who were worried the
revolutions would hit them next. The Gulf States (except Qatar) and Jordan have
been concerned about revolutions in their own countries, and the fact that Sisi
might have put the brakes on them comes as a great relief. For that reason,
Egypt’s new government is being swamped with Gulf cash.
exception is Qatar, which has supported the revolutions and Islamist rise in the
region – particularly through its Al Jazeera channel, which holds a pro-Muslim
Brotherhood line. Qatar had bet on Morsi and was upset about the
Likewise, Turkey’s Islamist-led government supported its ideological
partners – the Muslim Brotherhood – and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has
vented his anger by blaming the Jews.
Writing in the popular Arab daily
Al-Hayat on Wednesday, Elias Harfoush asked whether Assad was benefiting from
the events in Egypt. He cited Assad’s boast that the coup meant the end of
political Islam in the region, and the Syrian president’s belief “that the clock
has gone backward” to before 2011.
In addition, he wrote, Assad received
a boost from the fact that the West was clashing with the military-backed
government, as the latter called on the West not to interfere in Egyptian
internal affairs – a call that echoed Assad’s arguments.
Brotherhood’s failure at running Egypt has hurt its regional image and
“constituted an undoubted defeat for the MB in Syria,” Harfoush said.
terms of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, it
is because the Saudi leadership sees the group as revolutionary, threatening its
rule and interests in the region.
Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel
Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern
and African Studies, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that while Saudi
Arabia opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh’s chief concern in Syria was to
have the Islamists defeat Iran.
“It is that simple,” he said.
Saudis, he explained, are using the Islamists in an instrumental way, not
necessarily agreeing with them ideologically.
He noted that much of the
financial support was not coming from the Saudi government, but from private
donors and organizations.
The Saudis may be facilitating the transfer of
equipment and so forth, but in the end, Friedman sees this as an instance of the
Saudis’ pragmatism and realpolitik.
The Saudi leadership allows Salafi
networks based in their country to operate, but there is a difference between
actively promoting them and turning a blind eye, he said.
interests dovetail with the country’s interests, then they might cooperate with
them,” he added.
“The Saudis oppose the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere,”
he continued, pointing out that it had worked to prevent the group from
dominating the Syrian opposition.
Matthew Levitt – a senior fellow and
director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on
Counter-terrorism and Intelligence – wrote an article in Foreign Policy arguing
that the Syrian war had led to such great polarization between Sunnis and
Shi’ites that it had affected the cooperation between the two groups when it
came to jihad.
“The longer the Syrian war persists, the deeper the
sectarian divide will grow – not only between average Sunni and Shi’ite
faithful, but even between the violent extremists within each sect,” he
He told the Post that any kind of rapprochement between Iran and
the Muslim Brotherhood would be complicated by Syria.
“It’s a case of
Iran trying to work both sides of a problem, and of the Brotherhood being in
desperate need of allies at the moment,” he said.