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The Shadow War Behind Syria’s Rebellion: Foreign Backers Jockey for Influence in Turkey

May 25, 2013
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Source: Time

While the diplomatic grouping known as the Friends of Syria met in the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday to discuss a U.S.-Russian plan for peace talks, a low-key yet perhaps equally important gathering was being quietly held in Istanbul between Saudi officials and half of the 30 members of the Free Syrian Army’s Higher Military Command, which claims to represent most of the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The informal talks, which were held at a seaside hotel, marked the first gathering of the rebel group’s Military Command and Saudi officials since, according to senior members of the Military Command, Saudi Arabia stepped up earlier this month to become the main source of arms to the rebels. In so doing they nudged aside the smaller Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which had been the main supplier of weapons to the opposition since early 2012. Saudi officials have simply been meeting with the rebels on their own, without involving the Qataris.

The change is significant because Qatar and Saudi Arabia each favor different rebel factions. The Qataris have backed more Islamist rebel groups, while the Saudis—despite Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative form of government—have opted to support more moderate groups that may have an Islamist hue but are not considered conservative. The strong conservative Islamist current within rebel ranks may be weakened if support is increased to more moderate factions.

(MORE: Syria’s Rebels Aren’t Winning the War: Anatomy of a Battle)

The Saudi support for the more moderate rebel groups may seem at odds with Saudi Arabia’s own austere ideology but in the past, when the Saudis have backed ultraconservative Islamist militants (including supporting jihadists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s) they have also experienced blowback domestically, notably when the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was once a Saudi citizen, branded the ruling House of Saud apostates.

In early 2002, the two Gulf powerhouses, which are frequently political rivals, were instrumental in setting up a secretive group that operated something like a command center in Istanbul, with representatives from across Syria tasked with funneling free and vital military supplies through Turkey (with the help of Turkish intelligence and Western backing) and across the border into Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar had representatives in the command center.

A rift in the command center between Qatar and Saudi Arabia emerged in August of last year, with the Saudi and Qatari representatives backing different factions from among the plethora of armed groups on the ground in Syria. By September, when a group of senior military defectors and the Saudi-based Salafi sheikh Adnan al-Arour set up the Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils, the command center had more or less crumbled and was superseded by the Joint Command, which was primarily backed by Qatar, while the Saudis continued to pick and choose who they wanted to work with.

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