A Royal Decree issued by King Abdallah in early February imposing tough prison sentences on any Saudi national who "participates in hostilities outside of the Kingdom in any way" explicitly criminalizes fighting abroad, and was aimed squarely at those sympathizing with extremist rebel groups in Syria, now gaining the upper hand in the civil war there over more the mainstream rebel army. The decree provided that whoever joins "radical religious and intellectual groups or currents" shall face prison terms of between three and twenty years. Though there are likely less than a thousand Saudis fighting in Syria, the legislation highlights the increasing concern shown by the authorities over the potential for returning and radicalized fighters to breathe new life into the extremist movement in the Kingdom.
For several years, Syria has been the main focus of Saudi interest in the region. The Kingdom, which regards the civil war as an existential struggle with regional foe Iran (through its proxy, the Lebanon-based Hizbullah militia), has been the main source of financing and military aid for Sunni rebels. The Syrian policy was crafted by Intelligence Chief Bandar bin Sultan, who combined a deep knowledge of the Syrian tribal network and local politics with tireless energy and patience. Allowed an unprecedented degree of latitude by the king, Bandar arranged for shipments of cash and weapons, and facilitated training camps for rebels in Jordan, assisted by Deputy Defence Minister Salman bin Sultan. There are suggestions that Abd al-Rahman bin Faysal may have been involved in activities on the ground as well. Saud al-Faysal, the Foreign Minister, headed the diplomatic front.
Unfortunately for Bandar, the plan ultimately depended on either prying away the Russian support the Assad regime relies upon, or bringing the Americans into the conflict, as it became apparent that the rebel factions, already fragmented and unable to present a united front either on the battlefield or in the conference room, could not defeat government forces on their own. Despite this heavily active policy effort, the Saudis were angered when US President Obama refused to become involved, even after he had pledged to enforce a "red line" concerning the use of chemical weapons. Russian support for Assad seems firmer than ever, and ambitions to remove Assad have been replaced by a quiet resignation to the fact that the war will not end to anyone's satisfaction. Bandar has lowered his profile, and has now left Washington for Morocco, which may involve an extended stay for reasons of deteriorating health.
With the effort to unite the Syrian rebels a shambles, and radical groups like the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in open conflict with the more moderate groups favored by Saudi and the US, the focus has shifted. Though Saudi remains concerned by Qatari funding for the Islamist groups and their rise to prominence, Bandar's team continues to work the ground, and diplomatic efforts chug along.
But the royals are clearly backing away from the narrow regional focus on Syria. There has been a push to expand ties with Asian countries, in particular Pakistan, and unabashed support for military rule next door in Egypt. Part of this retooling can be attributed to frustration with the Americans, but the royals are above all concerned with their own survival.
When the Afghanistan war ended, the Kingdom was plagued by radicalized fighters returning from jihad there, who now swelled the ranks of al-Qa'ida and which led to a bloody and decades long struggle. The insurgency was eventually suppressed by then Deputy Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayif, but the specter of a return to extremism haunts the royals. The dangers of such radicalization were blithely ignored by the cavalier Bandar in his zeal to leverage the Syrian rebels against Assad, but as the war dragged on, the risk only increased.