Gulf crisis widens Syria rebels split
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are major sponsors of the insurgency
17 June, 2017
Confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is creating unease among Syrian rebels who expect the crisis between two of their biggest state backers to deepen divisions in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, news wires reported. Together with Turkey and the US, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been major sponsors of the insurgency, arming an array of groups that have been fighting to topple the Iran-backed president. The Gulf support has however been far from harmonious, fuelling splits that have set back the revolt.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar a week ago, accusing it of supporting terrorism, which Doha denies. It is the biggest rift among Gulf Arab states in years. “God forbid if this crisis is not contained, the situation in Syria will become tragic because the factions that are supported by different countries will be forced to take hostile positions towards each other,” Mustafa Sejari of the Liwa al Mutasem rebel group in northern Syria said cited by Reuters. “We urge our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to burden the Syrian people more than they can bear.”
“It will increase the split between north and south, as the north is mainly funded by Qatar and Turkey, and the south is supported by Jordan and the US-led coalition,” said an opposition source familiar with foreign support to the rebels. Another such source, a senior rebel official, said the Gulf crisis “will certainly affect us, people are known to be with Saudi, or Qatar, or Turkey. The split is clear.” A senior Turkish official said it was very important that the Qatar crisis did not take on “further dimensions”. “These developments will have certain effects on the developments in Syria, its effects will be seen on the field. The elements which Qatar supports may slightly weaken on the field,” he said.
In the fractured map of the Syrian insurgency, Qatari aid has gone to groups that are often Islamist in ideology and seen close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that is anathema to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Turkey, which has swung firmly behind Qatar in the Gulf crisis, is thought to have backed the same groups as Qatar in northern Syria, including the powerful conservative Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham. Qatar is also widely believed to have ties to al Qaeda-linked jihadists of the group once known as the Nusra Front.
Saudi aid has meanwhile been seen as targeted more closely at groups backed through programmes run by the US Central Intelligence Agency, in which Qatar has also participated even as it has backed groups outside that channel. The UAE has also played an influential role in that programme, together with staunch US ally Jordan. These powers wield more influence in southern Syria than the north.
The opposition has been losing ground to Damascus ever since the Russian military deployed to Syria in support of Assad's war effort in 2015. Assad now appears militarily unassailable, though rebels still have notable footholds near Damascus, in the northwest, and the southwest.