Syria: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming?

Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming? | World | TIME.com

Great reporting by Rania Abu Zeid for TIME:

As TIME reports here, disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons — Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups – including various shades of secular and Islamist militias–under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

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According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr. He belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus (Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafik). The party has not made Sakr available to TIME, denies his involvement in any weapons deals and insists that Sakr is in Belgium “on leave” from his political duties.

However, Sakr appears to have been in the southern Turkish city of Antakya in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, theLebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades – to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others – a selectivity that led to much chagrin.

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The situation is compounded by Qatar’s man — a major who defected from Assad’s army who has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment. The Qataris want to focus on aiding the regional military councils, FSA groupings within Syria set up earlier this year partly in order to get around the favoritism of the representatives. (There are at least 10 military councilsscattered throughout the country.) Goods would be delivered to a council, and then distributed to the brigades under its umbrella. In practice, it wasn’t quite as easy, or smooth. “We were given lists by brigade leaders of their men, but we stopped believing the numbers,” says a member of the Istanbul room from Syria’s Idlib province. However, the Saudis – via Okab Sakr – appear to only want to support certain groups within the councils, but not others.

Soon there will be more — the Americans, French, etc. will also have their favorites, which does not bode well for if and when Bashar falls.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.