Saudi Arabia, Qatar press for Syria rebel aid
By Angus McDowall and Regan Doherty, ReutersRIYADH/DOHA--Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the West's alarm at the rise of al-Qaida-aligned groups in Syria, but say the answer is for outsiders like them to be more involved in backing rebels there.
February 21, 2013, 12:04 am TWN
The two Gulf Arab states rooting for President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow appear to be chafing at Western pressure to keep out of the fight, arguing that building ties through aid and advice to favored opposition groups is the only way to ensure other, hard-line Islamist factions are sidelined.
The United States and Europe want to avoid arming rebel militias for fear that weaponry will find its way to ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim groups close to jihadis like al-Qaida.
Assad cites such militants, often seen as the most effective fighters on Syria's battlefields, to justify using relentless force in a 2-year-old war that has cost some 70,000 lives.
Attacks carried out by such groups against the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates Syria's power and security structures, have aggravated sectarian rifts in many Arab states including some in the oil-rich Gulf.
The United States in December listed the al-Qaida-endorsed al-Nusra Front in Syria as a terrorist group.
But Saudi Arabia and Qatar are signaling that the longer the war drags on, the stronger such hardliners will get, while other groups will likely struggle if denied meaningful aid, according to a Gulf Arab official, analysts and diplomats.
Gulf Arab policymakers argue that hastening Assad's fall will curb the militants' influence, and, a related bonus, reduce the regional clout of the Syrian leader's ally Iran.
'Arms for self-defense'
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal bluntly told a news conference in Riyadh on Feb. 12: “My country believes that the brutality of the Syrian regime against its own people requires empowering the people to defend itself.”
On Tuesday Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani said: “As there is no clear international opinion to end the crisis in Syria...we are supporting the opposition with whatever it needs, even if it takes up arms for self-defense.”
A Gulf Arab official, who asked not to be named, said it was vital to build ties to non-Qaida rebel groups to strengthen them now and in any future fight for power in a post-Assad Syria.
Mustafa Alani, a Gulf-based security analyst, said arms were now more available in Syria and what such groups needed most was nonlethal aid such as food and medical aid for their families.
“The Gulf is waiting for a green light — they want the West to lift this veto on supplies,” he said.
Gulf Arabs are not bound by U.S. and EU arms embargoes on Syria, and some analysts say they supplied weapons to Syria last year, probably through tribal and smuggling connections in Iraq.
But Saudi Arabia and Qatar have signaled any support would be much more effective if Western powers lent political backing, coordination, equipment and advice.