Syrian rebels at a checkpoint in Aleppo. (Reuters)
Riyadh, Jan. 8: On his eighth trip to fight with the rebels in Syria, in August, Abu Khattab saw something that troubled him: two dead children, their blood-soaked bodies sprawled on the street of a rural village near the Mediterranean coast. He knew right away that his fellow rebels had killed them.
Abu Khattab, a 43-year-old Saudi hospital administrator who was pursuing jihad on his holiday breaks, went to demand answers from his local commander, a notoriously brutal man named Abu Ayman al-Iraqi. The commander brushed him off, saying his men had killed the children “because they were not Muslims”, Abu Khattab recalled recently during an interview here.
It was only then that Abu Khattab began to believe that the jihad in Syria — where he had travelled in violation of an official Saudi ban — was not fully in accord with God’s will. But by the time he returned to Riyadh, where he now volunteers in a programme to discourage others from going, his government had overcome its own scruples to become the main backer of the Syrian rebels, including many hard-line Islamists who often fight alongside militants loyal to al Qaida.
The disillusionment of Abu Khattab — who asked that his full name be withheld because he still fears retribution from jihadists — helps illustrate the great challenge now facing Saudi Arabia’s rulers: how to fight an increasingly bloody and chaotic proxy war in Syria using zealot militia fighters over whom they have almost no control.
The Saudis fear the rise of al Qaida’s affiliates in Syria, and they have not forgotten what happened when Saudi militants who had fought in Afghanistan returned home to wage a domestic insurgency a decade ago.
They officially prohibit their citizens from going to Syria for jihad, but the ban is not enforced; at least a thousand have gone, according to interior ministry officials, including some from prominent families.
But the Saudis are also bent on ousting Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, and his patron, Iran, which they see as a mortal enemy.
Their only real means of fighting them is through military and financial support to the Syrian rebels. And the most effective of those rebels are Islamists whose creed — rooted in the puritanical strain of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — is often scarcely separable from al Qaida’s.
Abu Khattab, a slight-figured man with bulging eyes and the scraggly beard of an ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslim, embodies some of these paradoxes. He now volunteers here once a week to warn young men about the false glamour of the Syrian jihad at the government’s rehabilitation centre for jihadists.
“There is a shortage of religious conditions for jihad in Syria,” he said. Many of the fighters kill Syrian civilians, a violation of Islam, he added.
But as Abu Khattab talked about Syria, his own convictions seemed scarcely different from the jihadists he had carefully denounced (two officials from the Interior Ministry were present during the interview). He made clear that he considered Shias and Assad’s Alawite sect to be infidels and a terrible danger to his own people.
“If the Shias succeed in controlling Syria, it will be a threat to my country,” Abu Khattab said. “I went to Syria to protect my country.”
At times, his sectarian feelings seemed to outshine his unease about the excesses of some of his more extreme comrades. He did not deny that he had often fought alongside members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.