Saudi Arabia and Qatar share the West’s alarm at the rise of Al Qaeda-aligned groups in Syria, but say the answer is for outsiders like them to be more involved in backing rebels there, Reuters reported from Riyadh.
The two Gulf Arab states rooting for President Bashar 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 favoured opposition groups is the only way to ensure other, hardline 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 Qaeda.
Assad cites such militants, often seen as the most effective fighters on Syria’s battlefields, to justify using relentless force in a two-year-old war that has cost some 70,000 lives, Reuters reported.
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 Al Qaeda-endorsed Al Nusra Front in Syria as a terrorist group.
But Saudi Arabia and Qatar are signalling 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-defence’
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal bluntly told a news conference in Riyadh on February 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-defence.”
A Gulf Arab official, who asked not to be named, said it was vital to build ties to non-Qaeda 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 non-lethal 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 US 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.
Free Syrian Army and Hizbollah
The rebel Free Syrian Army on Wednesday threatened to shell positions of the powerful Hizbollah militant group in neighbouring Lebanon after accusing it of firing across the border into territory it controls, Agence France-Presse reported from Beirut.
“In the past week... Hizbollah has been shelling into villages around Qusayr from Lebanese territory, and that we cannot accept,” General Selim Idriss, the FSA’s chief of staff, told AFP on the phone, adding that the rebels have given Hizbollah a 48-hour deadline to stop the attacks.
Lebanon is sharply divided over the Syrian conflict, with the Sunni-led March 14 movement supporting the revolt against Assad and the Shiite Hizbollah and its allies backing the regime.
“Hizbollah has long been sending combatants into Syria to fight alongside Bashar Al Assad’s forces, and we just fight them on our territory,” said Idriss, AFP reported.
“But what we cannot accept is that Hizbollah is abusing Lebanese sovereignty to shell Syrian territory and Free Syrian Army positions,” said the rebel commander.
Specifically, he accused Hizbollah of shelling villages and rebel positions around the insurgent-held town of Qusayr, which is located in the central Syrian province of Homs.
Idriss said that Hizbollah had fired into villages around Qusayr from the border village of Zeita, a Hizbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon.
On the ground
A missile struck the command centre of the main Syrian rebel force near Damascus on Wednesday, wounding its leader, activists said, and a football player was killed when a mortar bomb hit a stadium in the centre of the capital, Reuters reported from Amman.
The missile attack on Liwa Al Islam Brigade, which is spearheading a three-week-old offensive that has given the rebels a foothold inside Damascus, deals a blow to efforts to undermine Assad in his seat of power.
A rebel spokesman said Sheikh Zahran Alloush, founder of the brigade, was wounded but declined to give further details, Reuters reported.
“We cannot disclose Sheikh Zahran’s condition,” said the spokesman, Islam Alloush, who is also his cousin.
Activists said the early morning strike took place near the northern Damascus suburb of Douma. The rocket, possibly a Scud-type ballistic missile, devastated the area and killed or wounded other fighters, they said.
A rebel commander fighting with Liwa Al Islam in Damascus said: “It would be a great loss if Sheikh Alloush is killed. Liwa Al Islam is the most powerful on the ground and Sheikh Alloush is the brains behind its strength.”
Activists and Syrian state media later reported a mortar bomb had struck the Tishreen Stadium in central Damascus, killing a player from the Homs-based football team Al Wathba.
Syrian television broadcast footage of what appeared to be the team’s sleeping quarters, showing bloodstained walls and shattered glass on the beds.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria, said at least 20 people were killed in an air strike on Damascus suburb of Hamouriya.