Region: New plays on the Syrian chess board

Syrian rebel groups are keeping an anxious eye on the dispute pitting Qatar against its neighbours, as divisions threaten to widen between factions that have grown heavily dependent on their Gulf patrons for funding and arms – some of whose agendas are being actively shaped by their patrons’’ distinctive regional interests.

Fears are growing that the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus is set to become the latest proxy battleground for rival Gulf states. Their local clients are already facing off after a past year that has witnessed intermittent clashes in the capital’s ‘doughnut’ outer ring between the Qatar-backed Faylaq Al-Rahman and Fatah Al-Sham factions on one side, and the Saudi-sponsored Jaish Al-Islam on the other. At least 40 were killed in a late April standoff between groups that are nominally fighting in the common cause of overthrowing President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. These fissures have helped Assad’s forces to recapture more turf in the capital’s contested outer ring.

Such differences mirror splits in the exiled political opposition. While Riyadh plays host to the High Negotiations Committee, which represents the main Syrian opposition group, and backs Christian Syrian opposition leader Michel Kilo, the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition is under stronger Qatari influence.

Further north in Idlib province – where armed groups tilt heavily towards their Qatari/Turkish sponsors – there are reports of increased competition between Ahrar Al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a rebel umbrella group formed earlier this year, in which remnants of the Qatar-aligned Jabhat Al-Nusra are represented. The dynamics in Idlib are less closely correlated to Gulf political stances.

Their attention has been preoccupied by the Qatar crisis and Yemen conflict, but Syria remains much more than a distant sideshow for the antagonistic Gulf states. The Saudi-UAE-Bahrain-Egypt alliance has been particularly riled by Qatar’s Syrian activities, which rank high up the charge sheet of Doha’s perceived misdeeds. There have been allegations that $200m-300m of the controversial Iraq hostage payment, allegedly arranged by Qatar to free its nationals after a hunting party went wrong (GSN 1,035/8) has been funnelled to HTS, which is now considered to be the most powerful rebel alliance. London daily The Financial Times has reported that Qatar used the evacuation arrangement to pay $120m-140m to HTS. Another $80m went to Ahrar Al-Sham – which is more closely aligned to Qatar’s worldview – the FT said.

Ahrar Al-Sham has enjoyed strong and open support from Qatar, both in financial terms and from Doha-based Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel’s readiness to give its representatives a high media profile. Ahrar Al-Sham officials hold regular meetings on friendly Turkish territory.

However, some analysts argue that Qatari support is overstated. King’s College, University of London expert Dr David Roberts argues that Qatar’s activity in Syria has been “quite limited” since early 2016. This, ironically, reflects Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani’s intention to reduce the extent of Doha’s regional interventions, when compared to the policies advocated by his father and mother. A further retrenchment might follow, Roberts argued at a 29 June meeting on the crisis convened by the Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum (OxGAPS): a further reduction in Qatar’s involvement couldpossibly help to leverage stronger Iranian support (an alternative to ratcheting down its Syrian role to appease Riyadh and Abu Dhabi).

In keeping with the wildly diverging views emanating from Washington, US officials have a mixed view of Qatar’s Syrian influences. While Wadhington was happy for Qatari influence to be used to help free Theo Curtis, a US hostage held by Nusra, there is a deeper suspicion (fostered by players such as White House strategist Steven Bannon) that the Qataris have funnelled too much money to Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra over time.

The anti-Qatari alliance has the option of pulling several Syrian levers to undermine Doha’s influence. It could, for example, attempt to halt the flow of Qatari arms and cash channelled across the Turkish border; northern Idlib province is the main hub for Qatar-sponsored rebel groups. That would affect Ahrar Al-Sham’s strength, but it could be counter-productive for the GCC-3’s wider strategic objectives: squeezing Qatari supply lines to Idlib rebels would provide more opportunities for Shia militias and Assad regime forces to gain ground in the north – which might be seen as more significant than its other consequence, of strengthening Saudi-backed elements such as Jaish Al-Islam.

The GCC-3 are more likely to seek to weaken Qatar-backed forces further south, where the likes of Ahrar Al-Sham are already under pressure. That scenario could entrench a regional division of influence, with northern Syria cemented more strongly in the Qatari-Turkish axis, and the south more firmly in the US-Saudi-Emirati-Jordanian fold. Given Riyadh’s reduced interest in Syria since it opened up the Yemen conflict in 2015, Saudi Arabia may have less incentive to take on Qatar in its northern Syrian powerbase; Eastern Ghouta looks to be the lower hanging fruit. A well-placed source in Gaziantep, southern Turkey told GSN the Qataris were too strongly positioned via Ahrar Al-Sham to be seriously at risk of being weakened in Idlib province. “On the other hand, Jaish Al-Islam is strongest in Eastern Ghouta and has a limited presence in the Idlib area,” the source said.

This battle is not just about guns and ammo: Qatar supports at least ten non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in Syria, with an annual funding budget reckoned to be worth $100m. The Qatar Red Crescent is a major humanitarian player in the north, providing sizeable assistance to refugee camps, including non-food items.

The Saudis and Emiratis lack similar traction – and know that any moves to stop such aid would not be viewed favourably on the ground in Syria, where the battle for public opinion figures strongly in calculations. “Many NGOS have a direct link with the Qatar Foundation and many other Qatar organisations that provide support to Syrians, so any constraints imposed on Qatar would have a major impact on the humanitarian position in the north,” the Gaziantep source said. Meanwhile, the United Nations has steadfastly refused to bow to Saudi pressure to isolate Qatar. According to the source, “the UN has made it very clear that they will not boycott Qatar as they still consider it a legitimate actor in Syria. On the contrary, it will be supportive of their agenda… but there is a lot of tension and anxiety around Syria at the moment.” The danger of the Gulf rift catalysing a more intense phase of competition among Syrian rebel groups remains real, particularly in Eastern Ghouta where pro- and anti-Qatari groups have enjoyed a fragile co-existence that has frayed this year.

The Saudis-Emirati alliance may yet receive support from a surprising source: the Syrian Kurds. These canny political players are wary of Turkish plans to pin down the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) allies in northern and north-eastern Syria. Some Kurdish officials have been making supportive comments towards the Saudis, in the knowledge that Qatar is firmly allied to Turkey. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are rumoured to be considering giving more active support to Kurdish groups, recognising that they are now the dominant combatants in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) challenging Islamic State in its Raqqa redoubt. The SDF has already warned of fierce confrontations looming with Turkish forces in northern Syria.

Qatari defence minister Khalid Al-Attiyah’s 30 June meeting in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart Fikri Isik is likely to have raised such issues.

Accurately predicting the next steps forward is difficult. As one Qatari-backed Syrian rebel leader noted, “nation-states support rebel movements at particular times and for particular reasons.” Such alliances of convenience can quickly sour, once the wider strategic imperative shifts.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are deeply wary of Qatar’s apparently still formidable influence on the battlefield, and its heft as an effective aid provider in Syria. Second-guessing MBS and his allies is a risky business, but it is possible their calculation may be that in most current Syrian circumstances it is too challenging and hazardous to use their local proxies to undermine Doha, appealing though that prospect might seem.

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