October 25th, 2013
11:09 AM ET

Saudi Arabia, Qatar may be playing dangerous game over Syria rebels

By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been working overtime arming rebel groups in Syria.  But events of the last month suggest these American allies have been throwing their lots in with radical, hardline Islamists.

Some observers are bullishly optimistic about the foreign policies of America’s Gulf allies, suggesting Saudi Arabia backs “the least Islamist component of the rebellion” and Qatar’s young new emir is displaying a more “mature” foreign policy that seeks to avoid controversy in places like Syria. However, there is worrying news coming from Syria’s Raqqa Province, now controlled by the al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Hateful books described by several different sources as the area’s new academic curriculum, reportedly originate from Saudi Arabia.

Ali al-Ahmed, who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, has conducted previous reviews of official Saudi textbooks. He told me that although the seal from Saudi Arabia’s education ministry has been removed from the books, they otherwise appear identical to the ones he has reviewed.  Al-Ahmed said that the two collections being brandished in Raqqa are “toxic,” promoting extremism and the dehumanization of non-Muslims.

But this isn’t the only development that appears to shed light on Saudi and Qatari objectives in Syria.

ISIL has gone on the offensive against certain Syrian rebel groups that are frequently linked to Qatar’s largesse, including Ahfad al-Rasoul and the Farouq Brigades. However, another recipient of Qatar’s support – arguably the strongest militia around Syria’s largest city, Aleppo – appears to prefer to negotiate with ISIL instead of helping other rebels fight it

Perhaps more worrying is what this Qatari-backed group did next.  On September 24, one of its leaders in Aleppo issued a declaration with a handful of other militias that called for an Islamic state and rejected the Western-backed Syrian opposition coalition.  Its number one signatory was the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s other main affiliate in Syria. Roughly half the groups that joined in this announcement were Islamist brigades that have reportedly received backing from either Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

A week later, the head of another Islamist group announced the merger of dozens of rebel organizations around Damascus into a massive “Army of Islam.” Both diplomats and rebel fighters indicated that this merger occurred at the conscious direction of Riyadh.  The organization’s leader, Zahran Alloush, studied in Saudi Arabia, where his father is a Salafist cleric.

The merger in Damascus contradicts claims that the Kingdom supports only “quietist” Salafis who reject political Islam, since Alloush’s brigade calls for an Islamic state and flies the black jihadist flag instead of a Syrian one.  He has insisted this Damascus merger will not push back against ISIL and has openly advocated ethnic cleansing.

Saudi Arabia has suffered blowback for supporting jihadist groups before, most notably when al Qaeda went on a rampage in the Kingdom a decade ago. However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have other incentives that push them toward promoting Syrian jihadists or at least turning a blind eye.

Riyadh has long promoted the strident, Salafist ideology of Wahhabi Islam at home and abroad (indeed, the textbooks in question are tagged “distributed free of charge”).  Since the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has aggressively fanned sectarian hatreds to keep its own disaffected Sunnis and Shiites from joining forces to demand greater rights.

Qatar, noted for its “hyperactive” foreign policy, is so eager to acquire clients in the region that it has shown little concern for these groups’ intensely Islamist principles.  Qatar reportedly tried to give the Muslim Brotherhood a stranglehold over Syria’s political opposition and was chastised by the U.S. for letting advanced weapons reach the Nusra Front.

Under pressure this past May, Qatar let Saudi Arabia take charge of the opposition cause in Syria.  However, now that Saudi Arabia finds itself in a position of leadership over the rebellion, it also has incentives to encourage a broad military coalition against the al-Assad regime. Evidently, the Saudis have been giving in to that temptation, building a very large but also very jihadist tent among the rebels.

But at what cost?  Before the war, Salafists in Syria were not indigenously grounded.  Since then, they have opportunistically used this conflict to expand their influence, tapping into material support and sectarian rhetoric from the Gulf.

Some outside observers believe hardliners like Alloush are now the only game in town amongst Syria’s armed opposition.  However, the continued expansion of such hardline rebel groups means that enticing Western support for the opposition is going to get much tougher as time goes on.

Yet these developments may be a sign that Saudi Arabia and the rebels are writing off the chances of U.S. military intervention altogether.  Washington’s recent decision not to launch missile strikes on Syria infuriated the Saudis, and our exclusive focus on chemical weapons has given the Assad regime a new lease on life.

America’s Gulf allies want al-Assad out, and they want it now. Combined with Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s natural ideological predispositions, this intense desire to win Syria’s civil war seems to be overpowering any possible instincts for caution from the Gulf. Riyadh and Doha are feeding an unruly jihadist problem in Syria that will no doubt create all kinds of headaches for America and the region down the line.

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Topics: Saudi Arabia • Syria • Terrorism

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. George patton

    We need to just simply ignore both Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the rulers of these countries are no more than self serving Islamic Aristocrats who put the US dollar ahead of Allah in their religion! We can import just as much oil from places like Russia, Iran and Venezuela! If we'd only quit backing up the so-called "rebels" trying to oust the Assad regime, they'd come to the negotiating table for the best deal they can get and end the already long and bloody civil war in Syria!!!

    October 25, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  2. Ricky

    It is becoming more and more apparent that Muslims or the Islam faith are NOT the root of terrorism but Arabs, like Saudis' are the true root cause of terrosim. Why? Because other muslim non-Arab nations are not violent or ahve historical links to terrorism, such as Bulgaria, Albania or Malayasia. It really seems the Arab people are destroyers of the current modern world and it is they that should be all rounded up and terminated – starting with Saudis'. Let's bring back the Holy Crusades to complete the wiping out of Arabs.

    October 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • abdu

      i think it's more correct to say the saudi rulers are the root terrorism , not the Saudis in general , i'm a saudi and i know what our leaders are doing is wrong . and encourage terrorism

      October 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Reply
      • ✠RZ✠

        Call it whatever you like and give it whatever shape or form, but when you cut through all the facades, politics, smoke and mirrors it still all comes down to money, geopolitics, world hegemony and power. Which is pathetic. If any leadership or government really gave a damn about humanity, it would advocate that the pinnacle of our focus and combined effort and energy should be spent on getting us off this planet. Einstein was right, humans are infinitely stupid.

        October 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      You seem to forget Rick, it was the Turks in 1915 who killed over 1.8 million Armenians and today still refuse to grant the Kurds the independence they deserve. Furthermore, had the Turks not committed atrocities against the Roman Christians living in Asia Minor under their newly acquired territories after the 1971 battle of Manzikert, Pope Urban II may not have proclaimed the First Crusade in 1095.

      October 25, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • Rashid

      I am an Arab why you want to terminate me.
      ?. The root cause of our problems is your foreign policy aganda. Saudi, Qatari and other Arab leaders are staunch American allies. They are serving the interest of your country in the region. They helped the USA to end the cold war in Afghanistan by using zealots for that cause. When the war is over they return back to with their ideology against USA. What I have to do with it as an individual to the extent you are calling to terminate me. I am like you love peace and I want my kids to go to school to learn without fear. I want them to get good health services and good jobs. I am an arab and human being.

      October 26, 2013 at 6:30 am | Reply
  3. shad

    Whatever you think of the Saudis, they for once have stood up to the ruthless Baath regime brutality against its own people, while Obama and the rest of the civilized world showed how uncivilized they truly are..... I would love to believe that there will be a day where we will be asking and critiquing ourselves on what positive difference we've made in this mad world...

    October 26, 2013 at 1:35 am | Reply
  4. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    October 26, 2013 at 3:56 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Saudi Arabia recently turned down its two-year non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in protest at the UN's apparent inability to resolve the Syrian crisis.
    There have been frustration among Saudi leadership, regarding America's handling Assad. The Saudis want to see him gone and Iran's influence over Syria diminished. They are frustrated that the rebels haven't prevailed and that Washington is proving so cautious about arming the rebels.

    October 26, 2013 at 8:34 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The Saudis were deeply disappointed as the nuclear disarmament deal between the US and Russia, which left Assad stronger and the rebels weaker. The Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Prince Salman, broke off his holiday, as he expected the US were launching a strike on Syria.

      October 26, 2013 at 8:38 am | Reply
      • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

        True, j. von hettlingen. All this proves is that these narcisstic leaders in Saudi Arabia want power and to serve the right-wing thugs in Washington D.C. Obama had to back down from attacking Syria since the Russians successfully persuaded the Assad regime to agree to rid themselves of chemical weapons and this heinous attack would affect our politicians seriously when it came to public relations!

        October 26, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  6. pepe

    foundation for defense of democracies is an israeli lying tank.

    October 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  7. joe anon 1

    does "senior fellow" at an israeli propaganda tax write off mean "lead liar"?

    October 26, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  8. VIVA QATAR AND DOWN WITH IRAN ,HIZBOALLAH AND SYRIAN THUGS

    it is bul sh it, only 8% of the freedom fighters are Islamist and the rest all like us want real democracy and hate communist fascist like bashar al asad and Russia and hate terrorists like IRAN AND HEZBOLLAH WHO ARE THE PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER 1...SAUDI AND QATAR MUST HELP TO GET RED OF THOSE COMMUNIST BAATH PARTY AND ALL THE HEZBOLLAH TERRORISTS who are get paid by Iran and get weapons from Russia. VIVA QATAR AND SHAME ON YOU USA AND UN , MORE THAN 150,000 CHILD , WOMEN AND KURDS WERE KILLED AND MANY CHRISTIANS BY THOSE SYRIAN AND IRANIANS THUGS.

    October 26, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Reply
    • Bimbo the Birthday Clown

      This is the dumbest comment I've seen here yet. The bozo who posted this must be another feeble minded, hillbilly Tea Partier from the South! In truth, the majority of the atrocities committed in Syria today are done by the thugs trying to rid Syria of the Assad regime and replace it with a U.S. backed pseudo-democracy similar to the one in Iraq!

      October 27, 2013 at 10:37 am | Reply
  9. Mark Bulmer

    Radical hard-line Islamists did not really exist thirty years ago. It is entirely conceivable that radical hard-line Islamists will vanish if American-Islamic diplomatic conditions improve. If you want to talk about hard-line radicals, how about dictators that have killed 100,000 + of their people.

    November 16, 2013 at 11:30 am | Reply
  10. ssshbd

    IRAQI , SYRIAN & IRANIAN Mullahs/rulers
    (Shias number is only 8% of Muslim population; Most of the Shias are Atheist, Feminists, Heretics, Ultra nationalists, Pagans, Communists & liars – so they are not muslims, even though Shias claim to be Muslims.)
    Shia Iranian Government (& Shia people of Syria 10%, Iran 70% & Iraq 50% ) is very dangerous for all people – Muslims or non Muslims. Iranian Islam is false, show purpose. Iranian version of Islam & Irani clerics claims lying is OK and good .Iran is killing Islam and Muslims. Iran is a republic destroying Islam & Muslims. Everything Iran’s clerics do is against Islam. You should not look at Iranian Muslims and Iranian Islam & its clerics/mullahs to learn about Islam.
    Iranian Government is very dangerous for all people – Muslims-non Muslims. Iranian Islam is false, show purpose. Iranian version of Islam & Irani clerics claims lying is OK and good .Iran is killing Islam and Muslims. Iran is a republic destroying Islam & Muslims. Everything Iran’s clerics do is against Islam. You should not look at Iranian Muslims and Iranian Islam & its clerics/mullahs to learn about Islam. Even Shias in Pakistan 25%, Afghanistan 20% & some small numbers of shias in various former soviet Russian– now independent states had helped the Atheist- Communists to destroy their countries & people. Please read these books-

    The Mirage in Iran – By abu aminaah bilal Philips:

    http://www.kalamullah.com/Books/The%20Mirage%20in%20Iran%20Comp.pdf

    Devils Deception by Ibn al-Jawzi:

    http://www.islamhouse.com/d/files/en/ih_books/single/en_Devils_Deception_by_Ibn_al-Jawzi.pdf

    http://www.kalamullah.com/Books/Devils%20Deception%20by%20Ibn%20al-Jawzi.pdf

    http://www.shiaexposed.blogspot.com/

    http://www.shia-watch.blogspot.com/search/label/Iraq

    http://sunnairan.wordpress.com/the-dismal-reality-of-the-ahlus-sunnah-in-iran/

    The Huthis: Between Iran and al-Qaeda – http://salafimanhaj.com/pdf_page.php?pdf=193
    The Relationship Between al-Qaida and Iran – http://salafimanhaj.com/pdf_page.php?pdf=134

    Some Political views of Muslims – http://salafimanhaj.com/

    December 1, 2013 at 9:34 am | Reply

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