(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion Tuesday that no Saudis are fighting in Syria raised eyebrows, but the State Department said later the point he was making was that the kingdom is not actively involved in the conflict in the same way Iran is on the regime’s side.
“We do not believe it is appropriate for the Assad regime to have invited the Iranians and Hezbollah to cross international lines and to have their fighters on the ground,” Kerry said. “There are no United States fighters. There are no Saudi fighters. There are no Qatari fighters on the ground.”
Kerry was speaking in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, standing alongside his Saudi counterpart who repeatedly lashed out at President Bashar Assad’s regime and those supporting it, and insisted that the rebels must be armed.
Saud al-Faisal said that “foreign participation” by the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah and Iran was “the most dangerous development” in the conflict. Neither he nor Kerry said anything during their joint press appearance about foreign jihadists among the opposition forces fighting against the regime.
It has been reported for months that Saudi volunteers, in their hundreds or more, are fighting for various rebel groups inside Syria.
Just last month a Syrian human rights monitoring group said that a Saudi commander with al-Nusrah – an al-Qaeda front designated a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. – had been killed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights identified the Saudi as Kasura al-Jazrawi, and also released an earlier, undated video clip showing Jazrawi executing at least nine regime supporters, shooting each bound and blindfolded man in the back of the head.
A United Nations-commissioned report early this year highlighted the “the proliferation of foreign fighters” in the conflict, listing Saudi Arabia as one of the main countries of origin. Others came from Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, it said.
“Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague noted in a speech last February.
A report this month by Flashpoint Partners, a counterterrorism consulting firm, tracked 280 foreign rebels killed in Syria between July 2012 and May 2013, and found that Saudi Arabia accounted for the second-largest contingent, with 44 dead (16 percent of the total). Only Libya accounted for more, with 59 dead (21 percent).
Saudi Arabia has not encouraged citizens to go to Syria to fight, and last April the kingdom’s grand mufti, Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, declared there was no religious justification for a jihad in Syria.
Asheikh shifted his stance early this month, however, after a key rebel-held town in Syria fell to regime forces backed by Hezbollah, a development that has unleashed a wave of anti-Shi’ite sentiment.
When the influential – and controversial – Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi reacted to the fall of al-Qusayr by calling every capable Muslim to make himself available for jihad against Assad and Hezbollah, the Saudi mufti welcomed his stance, adding his condemnation of what he called “this repulsive sectarian group and all those backing it.”
Along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia has been providing arms to Syrian rebels over the past year, and the Obama administration recently announced it will do so too – a decision that drew praise from quarters long advocating such involvement to help remove Assad, and criticism from others who worry U.S. weapons will fall into the hands of radical jihadists among the opposition.
Asked at a press briefing later about Kerry saying there were no Saudi fighters in Syria, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said his point was that “the moderate opposition that we support stands in stark contrast to the regime’s efforts to bring in these outside actors.”
“The secretary’s point is you have the regime bringing in the active foreign involvement of Iran and Hezbollah as parties to the conflict,” he said. “I can’t comment on any foreign fighter who may have entered on either side of the conflict of their own volition.”
Asked about Sunni clerics urging jihad, Ventrell said President Obama had been clear that “we are against all extremists.”
“We’ve been clear going back a long time how much we are concerned about extremism and how we very much are working to support the moderate opposition.”
U.S. decision to send military aid commended
Speaking in Jeddah after his meeting with Kerry, the Saudi foreign minister accused Assad of “genocide,” said the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran meant Syria was effectively an “invaded country,” and indicated that Saudi Arabia is stepping up its support for the rebels.
“Saudi Arabia is not a country that interferes in internal affairs of countries. But an invaded country, where genocide is being perpetrated, is not a normal situation,” he said. “I can say with all clarity that we will help the Syrian people defend themselves.”
“The aid we can provide is proportionate to our capabilities. But we will not stop helping them in the most effective way that we can, according to that capability.”
Kerry’s own comments were more tempered. “We do not want this to be a wider war,” he said. “Our hope is to be able to speedily move to a place where the killing can end and the people of Syria will have a chance to choose their future.”
Kerry said the U.S. believed the process aimed at getting the regime and rebels to sit down in Geneva and work out a political transition is the best hope for peace.
“But we will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian military coalition and to the Syrian opposition in the interim,” he added.
Al-Saud said he wanted to “commend the U.S. decision to send military aid to the Free Syrian Army, and express my relief for what I heard today from the U.S. secretary of state concerning both changing the military balance of powers on the ground and maintaining the legitimacy of the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.”
Obama last December announced U.S. recognition of the Free Syrian Army-backed National Coalition as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
On the same day the administration designated the al-Nusrah Front a FTO, a move that was criticized by numerous Syrian rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army.