BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has prevailed over its small but ambitious Gulf neighbor Qatar to impose itself as the main outside force supporting the Syrian rebels, a move that may curb the influence of Qatari-backed Islamist militants.
Though governments in neither Riyadh nor Doha would provide official comment, several senior sources in the region told Reuters that the past week’s wrangling among Syria’s opposition factions in Istanbul was largely a struggle for control between the two Gulf monarchies, in which Saudi power finally won out.
“Saudi Arabia is now formally in charge of the Syria issue,” said a senior rebel military commander in one of northern Syria’s border provinces where Qatar has until now been the main supplier of arms to those fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
The outcome, many Syrian opposition leaders hope, could strengthen them in both negotiations and on the battlefield - while hampering some of the anti-Western Islamist hardliners in their ranks whom they say Qatar has been helping with weaponry.
Anger at a failure by one such Qatari-backed Islamist unit in a battle in April that gave Syrian government forces control of a key highway helped galvanize the Saudis, sources said, while Qatari and Islamist efforts to control the opposition political body backfired by angering Riyadh and Western powers.
The northern rebel commander said Saudi leaders would no longer let Qatar take the lead but would themselves take over the dominant role in channeling support into Syria.
“The Saudis met leaders of the Free Syrian Army, including officers from the Military Council in Jordan and Turkey, and have agreed that they will be supporting the rebels,” he said after attending one of those meetings himself.
Prince Salman bin Sultan, a senior Saudi security official, was now running relations with the Syrian rebels, backed by his elder brother, intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
Qatar also gave ground in the political field, accepting finally, late on Thursday, that the National Coalition should add a non-Islamist bloc backed by Saudi Arabia.
“In the end Qatar did not want a confrontation with Saudi Arabia and accepted the expansion,” said a source close to the liberals who were allowed to join a body which the United States and European Union want to become a transitional government.
The rebels, whose disunity has been a hindrance both in the field and in maneuvering for a possible international peace conference in the coming weeks, still face a huge task to topple Assad, who has long labeled his enemies Islamist “terrorists” and has his own powerful allies abroad, notably Iran and Russia.
Washington and EU powers have been reluctant to send arms, partly for fear of them reaching anti-Western rebels, including some aligned with al Qaeda. But Britain and France this week ended an EU arms embargo and tighter, Saudi supervision of supply channels could make it easier for London and Paris to start sending weapons if planned peace talks fail.
Describing the shift in military supervision, several sources from the political and military leadership of the Syrian opposition and a Saudi source said that anyone, whether a state or among wealthy Arabs who have been making private donations to the rebel cause, would now need the Saudi princes’ approval over what is supplied to whom if they wish to send arms into Syria.
Qatari help was still expected. But a division between a Qatari sphere of influence on the northern border with Turkey and a Saudi sphere on the southern, Jordanian border was over.
“The goal is to be effective and avoid arms getting into the wrong hands like before,” said a senior Saudi source. “Saudi and Qatar share the same goal. We want to see an end to Bashar’s rule and stop the bloodshed of the innocent Syrian people.”
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are close allies in many respects: both armed by the United States, as Sunni Muslims they share an interest in thwarting Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran and its Arab allies - Shi’ites in Iraq and Lebanon and Assad’s Syrian Alawites. Both also want to preserve the absolute domestic power of the ruling dynasties and Western demand for their vast energy resources.
But their interests diverge, particularly over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups viewed with suspicion by Western powers and in Riyadh. As in Syria, Qatar has delivered extensive financial and other support to Islamists who have risen to prominence in Egypt and Libya as a result of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests of 2011.
Keen to punch above its weight in the world, independent of its dominant Saudi neighbor, Qatar hosts both a major U.S. air base and influential Islamists exiled from other Arab states; while preserving autocracy at home it has also aided liberals abroad, not least through its Al Jazeera satellite TV channel.
Saudi Arabia, whose king enjoys special status with the Sunni rebels as guardian of the holy city of Mecca, has long been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the Cold War, it lent it support as a counterbalance to leftist Arab nationalism which threatened the traditional Gulf monarchies. But the U.S.-allied kingdom now sees political Islam as a graver threat.
Riyadh’s view of Syrian Islamist rebels is also influenced to some extent by its experience backing Arabs who flocked to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s; some returned home, like the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, to wage a campaign of violence intended to topple the house of Saud.
Two events finally prompted Saudi Arabia and the United States to lose patience with Qatar’s Syrian role - one on the battlefield and another among the political opposition in exile.
In mid-April, Assad’s troops broke a six-month rebel blockade of the Wadi al-Deif military base on Syria’s key north-south highway, after a rebel brigade that was seen as close to Qatar broke ranks - exposing fellow fighters to a government counterattack that led to the deaths of 68 of their number.
A rebel commander, based near Damascus and familiar with the unit which buckled, said its failure had been due to its leaders having preferred using their local power to get rich rather than fighting Assad - a common accusation among the fractious rebels:
“Qatar’s bet ... failed especially in the Wadi al-Deif battle. The regime managed to break through them after they became the new local warlords, caring for money and power not the cause,” the senior commander told Reuters. That battlefield collapse infuriated Qatar’s allies in the anti-Assad alliance.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the failure to take over Wadi al-Deif camp,” the commander said.
In diplomatic struggles, Western nations were angered by the appointment by the opposition in mid-March of Ghassan Hitto as the exiles’ prime minister. He was seen by Western diplomats as Qatar’s Islamist candidate and Hitto’s rejection of talks with Assad’s government was seen as a block to negotiating a peace.
For one Western diplomat familiar with deliberations in the Friends of Syria alliance that backs the rebels, choosing Hitto was “the final straw” in galvanizing the Western powers behind the move to rein in Qatar by promoting Saudi leadership.
“They wanted to clip the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the Syrian commander from the north said.
For Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, concerned that the fall of Assad might mean a hostile, Islamist state, Qatar’s flaw was an enthusiasm for winning the war - as it helped Libyan rebels do in 2011 - without ensuring how any peace might look.
A Syrian rebel military source who has been close to Saudi officials expressed it thus: “Qatar tried to carve out a role for itself. But it did so without wisdom: they had no clear plan or a view of what would happen later. They just want to win.”
Additional reporting Amena Bakr in Doha and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald