The ongoing Qatar crisis has had an unexpectedly adverse outcome among the Syrian “rebels”, in many cases formerly known as al-Qaeda, who expect the crisis between two of their biggest state backers – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to deepen divisions in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Together with Turkey and the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been major sponsors of the insurgency, arming an array of groups that have been fighting to topple Syria’s Iran-backed president. However, in recent weeks the Gulf support has been far from harmonious, fuelling splits that have set back the revolt.
Quoted by Reuters, Mustafa Sejari of the Liwa al Mutasem rebel group in northern Syria said “god forbid if this crisis is not contained I predict … 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.”
“We urge our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to burden the Syrian people more than they can bear” he said magnanimously, when what he really meant is that he needs Saudis and Qatar on the same page so that the supply of weapons and cash can resume.
To be sure, for the terrorists rebels the Qatar crisis comes at the worst possible time: the opposition to Assad has been losing ground to Damascus ever since the Russian military deployed to Syria in support of Assad’s war effort in 2015. As Reuters adds Assad now appears “militarily unassailable”, although rebels still have footholds near Damascus, in the northwest, and the southwest. These are unlikely to hold without a continued infusion of support from the feuding Gulf states.
The splintering within the “fund flows” to rebels has further angered Saudi Arabia: in the fractured map of the Syrian insurgency, Qatari aid has gone to groups that are often Islamist in ideology and seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood – a movement that is anathema to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. At the same time, Turkey, which has swung firmly behind Qatar in the Gulf crisis, has backed the same groups as Qatar in northern Syria, including the powerful conservative Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham which in the past has cooperate with the al-Nusra front, also known as al-Qaeda.
Qatar is also widely believed to have ties to al Qaeda-linked jihadists of the group once known as the Nusra Front, which has rebranded since formally parting ways with al Qaeda and is now part of the Tahrir al-Sham Islamist alliance. While Qatar has officially denied Nusra ties, it has mediated the release of hostages held by the group including Americans, Greek Orthodox nuns and members of the Lebanese security forces.
Saudi aid has meanwhile been seen as targeted more closely at groups backed through programs run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – programs in which Qatar has also participated even as it has backed groups outside that channel.
The United Arab Emirates has also played an influential role in that program, together with staunch U.S. ally Jordan. These powers wield more influence in southern Syria than the north.
Meanwhile, as the Qatar crisis shows no signs of a quick resolution, Reuters cited an opposition source “familiar with foreign support to the rebels” who said the schism “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 (U.S.-led) coalition.” A second opposition 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.”
Adding to rebel concerns, the crisis has also nudged Qatar closer to Iran, which has sent planes loaded with food to Doha. “Any rapprochement between Qatar and Iran, or any other state and Iran, is very concerning for us,” the rebel official said. 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,” the official said.
Opposition sources fear the Gulf crisis could spark new bouts of conflict, particularly in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus where the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam has been fighting the Qatari-backed Failaq al-Rahman intermittently for more than a year. That quarrel has helped government forces regain parts of the area.
For now the Qatar crisis remains in limbo: the Arab states that turned against Qatar two weeks ago issued a list of dozens of people named as terrorists with links to Qatar, including prominent Islamist insurgent Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi national based in Syria known for mobilizing support for jihadist groups. They have not, however, yet issued a clear list of demands for Qatar to comply with in order to reverse the recent escalation.
As for the rebels, as we said two weeks ago now that the Qatar pipeline to Europe no longer appears feasible, the rebellion against Assad now seems moot, which is why the most likely outcome is a continued phase-out of support for forces fighting the Syria government until eventually the situation reverts back to its pre-2011 “status quo” even as the next major regional conflict appears set to be between Saudi Arabia and Iran. All it needs is a catalyst.