Saudi Arabia and Qatar Vie For Influence in Syria

Throughout the Syrian revolution, different international powers — most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar — have vied to exert their influence in the conflict by backing various groups, writes Fehim Tastekin.

al-monitor Qatar's prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani (C), speaks during a meeting of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee in Doha, April 8, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous.

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doha, syrian, saudi, qatar

Apr 17, 2013

The clashing interests of external actors have played a part in the impasse reached by the Syrian opposition, as much as their internal squabbling. In many places, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who try to trip each other up while posing as allies, has become a circus act on the Syrian stage. The act is based on the question, “Whose man will be left on the stage once President Bashar al-Assad goes?”

The general impression is that while Doha works especially with the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh prefers the secular-moderate wing. Saudis are selective in their relations with the Salafists. The Saudis, while hoping to make up for their loss of Iraq to the Shiites with a “Sunni Syria,” see a possible Brotherhood government in Damascus as a threat to the Gulf monarchies. Then, how are the Saudis applying their selectiveness in Syria? According to what Ahmed Masri, a rebel from Daraa, told The Telegraph: “The Saudis are supporting moderate groups. Most of the money they send is disbursed through the Higher Military Council. Delivery of the weapons Saudis pay for is supervised by the Americans.” The fact that the Saudis were delivering weapons they bought from Croatia to moderate fighters was revealed in December.

If only they could exert control

Most Saudi assistance is traveling to Syria via Jordan. The opposition fighters trained in Jordan are selected from moderate Sunni tribes. Does this mean that the Saudis are totally shunning the radicals? Of course not. It is no secret that the jihadist Salafists are kept operating with the help of Saudi religious men.

There are reports that the Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan is transferring al-Qaeda resources in Iraq to Jabhat al-Nusra. According to Wikileaks documents, Bandar, who is the black box of US-Saudi relations, after leaving his Washington ambassador post in 2005 that he had held for 22 years, began working with the Bush administration on plans to strengthen the Salafists against Iranian-supported elements. It is not conceivable that the Saudi-Salafist network is not involved in Syria. Riyadh does not hesitate to fight the Salafist version of al-Qaeda on its own soil while supporting them elsewhere. All it wants is for those weapons not to be turned against itself.

As far as I can decipher, the Saudi selectivity with regards to the Salafists started with field successes of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham brigades. After a while, Saudis banned their own Salafists from going to the war front. The Saudi Interior Ministry announced that the Saudis who go to the jihadist front will be arrested upon their return. Head Mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz instructed pro-jihad imams to say to their congregations: “We are against Saudi youth going to Syria for jihad. It is not clear under whom they are fighting. Instead they should  support Syrians with money and prayers.”

Adnan Arur, a Salafist religious leader of Syrian descent based in Jeddah, encourages sectarian violence in Syria but appeals more to deserting soldiers instead of Salafists. Arur, who is known for his part in setting up the Free Officers Movement, the Free Syrian Army and some other military councils, is so confident of his influence over rebel commanders that he once said, ''I am promoting you,” in a live TV transmission.

Confrontation in the civilian arena

There were, however, efforts to turn the Qatari-Saudi rivalry into cooperation. For example in September 2012, they set up a Revolutionary Military High Councils Command. The military councils responsible for supplies were attached to Qatar, and the coordinating office responsible for communications and logistics was attached to Saudis. But a month later, while Qatar convened the commanders in Doha to give them money, the Saudis welcomed those who didn’t go to Doha.

At that moment, Louay Miqdad, the spokesman of the FSA, announced the formation of an alternative Five Fronts Command. Miqdad works for Oqab Sakr, the Lebanese politician from the Future Movement, who is coordinating the Saudi assistance. Did the High Joint Military Command Council created under US pressure in Antalya last December end the confusion? Although there has been some progress in coordination, the situation is still chaotic.

The rivalry spills over to the civilian side. We saw that clearly while the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was electing a provisional prime minister last March. According to Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, Doha and Riyadh had agreed on Assad Mustafa. But in a last minute move, Qatar had Ghassan Hito appointed. Then the members supported by Saudi Arabia withdrew. The head of the coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, tried to resign so as not to “be a puppet of the Brotherhood.” In fact, the US does not want a provisional government but an executive under Khatib to be recognized by the Arab League. Khatib's call for dialogue with the provisional government, the Geneva process and the political solution plan of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi were all sabotaged. Brahimi, who said, “Qatar ruined our work,” is about to resign. Despite efforts to reorganize the opposition, the course of developments signals a prolonged proxy war and new internal struggles in the offing.

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