The Blurry Line Between Syria's War and the Violence in Egypt

By Ariel Ben Solomon

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 apart?

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.

The Gulf 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 coup.

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.

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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.

Furthermore, the Brotherhood's failure at running Egypt has hurt its regional image and "constituted an undoubted defeat for the MB in Syria," Harfoush said.

In 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.

The 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.

"If Salafi 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 wrote.

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.

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