The Saudi-Qatari Clash Over Syria

A deep look at the Gulf states' chess match over the rebels.

Saudi Arabia and the United States are now working closely together to bolster Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, reviving in the process an earlier model of covert military cooperation from the 1980s that successfully drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. This time their target is Russia’s last remaining Middle East Arab ally—the Assad regime, whose armed forces are equipped entirely with Russian weapons.

So far, the Obama administration has ruled out providing surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian rebels. But the Saudis are now reported to be going ahead with their own purchase of other non-U.S.-made missiles, apparently with American blessings, as Washington had previously stopped it.

Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in Jeddah on June 25 to discuss the coordination of U.S. and Saudi arms shipments to the Syrian rebels. "We want to make sure that that's being done in the most effective way possible," Kerry said.

The Obama administration’s June 13 decision to provide weapons to the rebels aligns the United States with its two closest allies in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been arming them for over a year now and pressuring a reluctant Washington to follow suit. But the decision also plunges Washington into entangling intra-Sunni Arab disputes, including between these two Arab monarchies, over which Syrian faction should rule in a post-Assad era.

King Abdullah has put Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington, in charge of implementing U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Syria. Regarded as a leading “hawk” in the ruling al-Saud family, Bandar is presently head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate, which coordinated Saudi money and arms sent to anti-Soviet “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. Another former Saudi envoy to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, led the covert Saudi arms program in Afghanistan.

One little-publicized consequence of the U.S.-Saudi alliance will be to curb the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a key Saudi goal. This has put the Saudi kingdom at direct odds with its neighbor, Qatar, the Islamic group’s prime Arab protector and promoter.

It has also placed the United States in the awkward position of taking sides between its closest Gulf allies. Qatar hosts the Pentagon’s main forward operations center, while Saudi Arabia is the keystone of U.S. efforts to build an Arab military counterweight to Iran in the Persian Gulf.

In this case, the Obama administration has decided to side with the Saudis to prevent extremist Islamic groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda branch, from dominating a post-Assad government. In return, the Saudi government has agreed to halt its own arms purchases for fundamentalist Salafi groups it favors elsewhere in the Arab world because of its adherence to this same trend of Islam. Instead, according to Syrian and diplomatic sources in the Gulf, it will join the United States in funneling arms through the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council, made up of secular rebel fighting groups.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance against the Russian-backed al-Assad regime revives their earlier one in Afghanistan during the Cold War. There, the two collaborated closely in sending billions of dollars in arms to militant Afghan Islamic “holy warriors” fighting to end the Soviet Union’s occupation. U.S.-Saudi aid began with small arms and escalated to the provision of U.S.-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles that were credited with turning the tide of war against Soviet forces.

One major difference between Afghanistan and Syria is it that the two old allies this time have agreed to work against the emergence of an Islamic-dominated government in place of the al-Assad regime. Saudi Arabia backed the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and was one of only three countries that ever recognized the Taliban government there. But after many Saudi Afghan veterans joined Al Qaeda in its campaign to overthrow the monarchy, it has become extremely wary of a similar blowback from aiding militant Islamists in Syria.

As during the Afghan war, the opposition in Syria is badly fragmented and the most extremist Islamic ones, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, have proven the best fighters. Fear of U.S. arms ending up in the hands of Islamic extremists has been a prime factor in the Obama administration’s dithering for months over sending any arms to the rebels.

Another factor, however, has been the Saudi-Qatari tug-of-war over the Brotherhood’s role within the fractious Syrian opposition, also a central cause of the rebels’ inability to agree on leaders for its National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces or a government-in-exile to facilitate international support.

The Saudi-Qatari conflict is rooted in the two countries’ radically different experiences with the Brotherhood as well their markedly different reactions to the 2011 prodemocracy uprisings across the Arab world. Qatar enthusiastically embraced the changes that catapulted the Brethren to power in Egypt and Tunisia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, after initially helping to orchestrate the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, has come to view the Brotherhood’s rise with growing foreboding.

The Saudis harbor a strong aversion to the Brethren because of what they regard as their unpardonable betrayal of the kingdom after it harbored thousands of them for decades from persecution by secular Arab dictators, first in Egypt and then in Syria.

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