American Allies Arming Syrian Jihadist Fighters

Most of the weapons that are smuggled into Syria by Qatar and Saudi Arabia end up in the hands of extremists, reports The New York Times. “The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official quoted by the newspaper.

The United States have committed to providing “nonlethal aid” to the Syrian opposition but also support their Arab Gulf allies in their effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both majority Sunni states with a sectarian and strategic interest in hastening Assad’s demise. The rebellion against his dictatorship is largely composed of Sunni Muslims and he is Iran’s only Arab ally. The Gulf Cooperation Council states, led by Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a struggle for regional hegemony with Iran. Replacing Assad’s government with a Sunni regime would weaken the Shia axis in the Middle East and inhibit Iran’s retaliatory options in case there is an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites which Arab and Western nations suspect are part of a weapons program.

The two most powerful monarchies in the region are not necessarily backing the same opposition groups in Syria. Qatar appears to be largely supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that the Saudis want nothing to do with. Read more “American Allies Arming Syrian Jihadist Fighters”

Qatar, Saudi Arabia Not on Same Page in Syria

French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22
French president François Hollande greets Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, in Paris, August 22 (Elysée/Christelle Alix)

The two most powerful Arab Gulf states have been at the forefront of supporting the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria but if his regime falls, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could easily fall out over the future of the country.

The monarchies of the Persian Gulf, united in the Gulf Cooperation Council, have sectarian and strategic interests in hastening Assad’s demise. They’re suspected of arming fellow Sunni Muslims in Syria who comprise some 70 percent of the population and form the backbone of the rebel movement against the minority Alawite regime in Damascus.

Because Assad is Iran’s only Arab ally, replacing his government with a majority Sunni regime would weaken the Shia axis in the Middle East and limit Iran’s retaliatory options in case there is an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear sites which Arab and Western nations suspect are part of a weapons program.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have advocated military intervention in Syria since early this year. Qatar’s Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said in January that “to stop the killing, some troops should go.” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Saud bin Faisal Al Saud said in February that providing weapons to the Syrian opposition was an “excellent idea” and a top Arab diplomat told Agence France-Presse the next month, “Saudi military equipment is on its way to Jordan to arm the Free Syrian Army.”

Qatar was among few Arab states to back an intervention in Libya last year when, like Assad, the country’s ruler, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, tried to suppress a popular uprising against his government with brutal force. Six Qatari fighter jets and two transport aircraft participated in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over the North African country and Qatar supplied weapons to the Libyan rebels which helped them to topple Gaddafi.

The Saudi kingdom stood largely on the sidelines of the Libyan operation but has enthusiastically embraced radical Salafist Muslim insurgents in Syria despite American apprehension. The United States fear that the growing jihadist movement in the Levant can backfire. Religious fanatics in control of Damascus may be no improvement over Assad, except they would likely sever ties with Tehran.

Qatar, on the other hand, is apparently betting on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, reports Rania Abouzeid for Time magazine. The Saudis want no relations with this Islamist group.

Saudi Arabia’s puritanical strain of Islam, Wahhabism, and the largely apolitical Salafist movement are at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood’s advocacy of political Islam or Islamism. The organization also favors republicanism and employs populist tactics to gather support in democratic systems, both clearly on display in Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February of last year and contrary to Saudi Arabia’s monarchial and authoritarian form of government.

Despite a temporary alliance between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi monarchy between the 1960s and 1980s to counter Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular Arab nationalism, growing religious dissent in the kingdom especially after the Gulf War in 1991 and the rising threat of Al Qaeda alerted the Saudis to the potential appeal of political Islam. (Ironic, given that the monarchy’s legitimacy is, in part, derived from its guardianship of the holy cities Mecca and Medina and its close ties with the Wahhabi clergy.) They also regard warily Turkey’s form of Islamism, even if it is informed by more tolerant Sufi culture and Kemalist secularism.

Qatar’s and Turkey’s active support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the latter’s hope of molding the movement according to its own vision could further undermine the stability of the monarchy. So it is backing the Salafists in Egypt (the al-Nour Party) and Syria even if they’re increasingly political as well and prone to jihadism.

Qatar doesn’t share the Saudis’ concerns. Unlike its neighboring kingdom, which houses a Shiite majority in its oil rich Eastern Province, Qatar’s population is largely homogenous and the royal family is popular and strong, allowing the emirate to conduct an activist foreign policy, whether on the Al Jazeera television channel or with fighter jets in the skies over Libya — preferably both.

David Roberts observed in Foreign Affairs magazine last year that “being at the forefront of popular Arab opinion and defending fellow Arabs against an onslaught from a widely hated dictator is a priceless commodity” for Qatar’s leaders, “both at home and abroad.”

Qatar believes that it’s on the ascendancy as an Arab leader while the Saudis are playing defense.

Gulf States Caught in Middle of Iranian-Saudi Cold War

Gulf foreign minister rallied behind the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday in their island dispute with Iran and condemned the “provocative” visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of tiny Abu Musa last week.

Ahmadinejad’s was the first visit to the island by an Iranian leader since the Islamic country conquered the archipelago near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz in 1971, when the United Arab Emirates were founded.

Ahead of the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on Tuesday, Ahmadinejad said that Iran was “ready to protect its existence and sovereignty” and threatened military action if foreign powers tried to reclaim the islands.

The cooperative body of Arab Gulf states, in turn, announced that a violation of the sovereignty of any of their members would be regarded as an encroachment against all GCC nations. Read more “Gulf States Caught in Middle of Iranian-Saudi Cold War”

Arming Syrian Opposition “Excellent Idea”: Saudi Arabia

The Saudi foreign minister told representatives of the “Friends of Syria” in Tunisia on Friday that arming the Syrian opposition would be an “excellent idea.”

His Qatari counterpart recommended the creation of an Arab peacekeeping force to “open humanitarian corridors to provide security to the Syrian people.” France supports the erection of humanitarian corridors or enclaves to shelter civilians and provide aid and medical assistance to citizens in beleaguered cities in Syria. Qatar’s emir suggested in January that “to stop the killing” in the country, “some troops should go.”

A Free Syria Army, which is leading the armed resistance against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has asked for weapons. Conservative lawmakers in the United States support such assistance.

President Barack Obama has promised to use “every tool available” to him to help the Syrian opposition and said that other countries could not be “bystanders” while Syria descended into civil war. An armed intervention, as in Libya last year, is still unlikely though. Syria is far more divided than Libya was and its state army more potent. Read more “Arming Syrian Opposition “Excellent Idea”: Saudi Arabia”

Qatar Calls for Armed Intervention in Syria

The emir of Qatar has called for an armed intervention of Arab nations in Syria. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of the tiny but enormously wealthy Persian Gulf state, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes in an interview that was broadcast on Sunday that in order “to stop the killing, some troops should go.”

The uprising in Syria has gone on for nearly a year but unlike was the case in Libya, where Arab and Western countries intervened last year with military force to stop the brutalities which Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s government committed against demonstrators, President Bashar al-Assad has been able to kill probably several thousand people in an effort to crush the civil unrest.

Syria was suspended as a member of the Arab League in November and monitors of the organization’s have been sent into the country to examine the situation. Barring further international pressure though, it would be difficult if not impossible for the protesters to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.

Qatar was among few Arab states that pushed for an intervention in Libya last year and along with the United Arab Emirates, the only regional member of the international coalition to support the effort with military assets.

Six Qatari fighter jets and two transport aircraft participated in the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya while Qatar supplied weapons to the rebels which ultimately enabled them to tilt the balance of the war in their favor.

Qatar’s natural gas wealth and popular monarchy enable the emirate to conduct an activist foreign policy. Qatar is aligned to neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United States and aims to position itself as a mediator between Arab states and the West. To that end, it has reached out to organizations as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Afghan Taliban without jeopardizing ties and arms deals with the Americans. Where Western nations are hesitant to engage in talks with radical Islamist organizations, the Qataris have no such reluctance.

For a small nation of just a quarter million people, situated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, being friends with everyone is a policy of survival. As the emir put it, “Don’t you think this is a good policy for a small country?”

David Roberts observed in Foreign Affairs magazine last year that “being at the forefront of popular Arab opinion and defending fellow Arabs against an onslaught from a widely hated dictator is a priceless commodity” for Qatar’s leaders, “both at home and abroad.” It may be the only leverage they have.

The Arabian Union

The European Union model is an example to many nations across the globe. The South American Mercosur is well underway to become an even more successful game plan for cooperation while in Southeast Asia, ASEAN provides a forum for states that might want to try to compete with their northern neighbors China and Japan. Even in Arabia, some states are conglomerating notes Curzon at ComingAnarchy. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) might well be the more prosperous of EU-imitators.

Established in 1981, the GCC actually did very little until the mid-1990s, “from which time the countries slowly set things in motion to unify many bureaucratic and administrative agencies and procedures” between them. A Patent Office was founded in 1992. In 1999, a Custom’s Union came into being. And this year, the GCC states began issuing universal driver licenses. There was even talk of setting up a single currency, “but that has been delayed due to Oman’s reluctance to join, Qatar’s disagreement with the policy, and the UAE’s frustration that a GCC Central Bank would be in Riyadh, not in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.”

On that note, Curzon notes, “one barrier to further unity is the Saudi-centric nature of the GCC — Saudi Arabia has the largest economy in the region and has great influence over its smaller, poorer neighbors, and the GCC headquarters is already in Riyadh.” As a solution, he offers the European experience: establish your headquarters in a small country (Belgium) lest the larger state or states lord over the others.

“A single currency seems a long way off,” concludes Curzon, “but open borders are probably just around the corner.” The economic benefits could be great indeed however he doesn’t mention any of the military considerations that go into the GCC. Writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Knights observes a changing balance of power in the Gulf region. He identifies three factors that are of influence here: a more effective spending of defense money, specifically on advanced technologies; a more balanced approach to military development that stresses training and maintenance capabilities; and the removal of the Iraqi threat. Well into the 1990s the northern Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, were dreadful of an Iraqi invasion. Their militaries were therefore geared toward land warfare forces. Nowadays, the greater threat is Iran which forces the UAE, Oman and Qatar to anticipate an attack either from sea or from the air.

The Iranian strategy doesn’t appear to have changed much since the 1980s which tells the Gulf States what to expect in the event of Iranian aggression. In 1986 and 1987 Iran “undertook or planned attacks on UAE and Saudi offshore oil and gas facilities, as well as Saudi coast guard facilities,” writes Knights. “In the late 1990s, Iranian gunboats periodically embarked on machine-gun attacks on unmanned gas rigs within Qatar’s offshore exclusive economic zones.”

The UAE are rapidly expanding their navies which will probably make them the greatest of Arab sea powers within the next decade. Six Baynunah class corvettes of French making are to form the backbone of the UAE fleet which will otherwise operate 24 major amphibious assault ships and seventy new transport and attack helicopters. Oman, too, is building a naval force while Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are working internationally to fight piracy in the Red Sea. Eventually, American support will still be necessary to completely repel an Iranian offensive but more and more, the Gulf States are able to provide for their own defense.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were subject to air incursions and missile attacks, respectively, and in 1991 and 2003, the three northern GCC states […] were attacked by Iraqi cruise and ballistic missiles. Since 2003, Tehran has stated that GCC military bases and ports could be subject to attacks in the event of a American-Iranian confrontation.

No wonder that the GCC states are also mounting impressive air defense systems. The UAE have bought so much as eighty F-16s; four C-17s; $3.3 billion worth of Patriot Advanced Capacity (PAC-3) surface-to-air missiles, and potentially the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. The Royal Saudi Air Force has 72 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, while Oman has twelve new F-16C/D Block 50/52 aircraft.

On the whole is seems likely that within the next ten years or so, the GCC will have grown into a much greater military power than Iran — or any other Middle Eastern state for that matter. Whether that is enough to deter Iran remains to be seen. Possibly it will only accelerate its nuclear weapons program to bring about a whole different kind of arms race…