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.
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