How Qatar funded extremists in Syria

The Syrian National Coalition was Qatar’s brainchild and was given a warm welcome in Doha

Gulf News

Damascus: According to The Financial Times, Qatar spent over $3 billion (Dh11 billion) to $4 billion in funding the Syria war and has paid up to $50,000 per year to defectors from the Syrian army and their families. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that over 70 weapons cargo flights were made within 12 months, carrying Qatari arms to Syrian rebels between April 2012 and March 2013. The Syrian National Council (SNC), the main political opposition, was Qatar’s brainchild and was given a warm welcome in Doha, where it allowed its leadership to use the building of the shuttered Syrian embassy to operate.

It also gave the SNC Syria’s official seat during the Arab League Summit in 2013, which Doha hosted.

When the SNC was founded, Qatar’s main contact was Mustafa Al Sabbagh, a construction businessman turned secretary-general of the National Coalition who used to write cheques for Syrian fighters and opposition members from his base in Doha.

Months later, the Saudis managed to wrestle control of the Syrian coalition from Qatar’s grip, alarmed by the rising presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in its top ranks, most being long-time proteges of the Qatari leadership.

Saudi Arabia was worried by the election of Mohammad Mursi in Cairo, and feared another Mursi in Damascus.

In early 2016, the Saudis created a broader coalition comprising senior figures called the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) headed by ex-Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab, a Baathist, tasked with leading the opposition in the UN-mandated Geneva talks.

The Saudis reached out to a wider spectrum of Syrian figures, ranging from Kurds and Arab nationalists to former Baathists and Islamists, but were always cautious about dealing with the Brotherhood, despite assurances from its deputy chief Farouk Tayfour, who when meeting then-Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal, that they would be different from their Egyptian comrades if they ever reached power in Syria.

Most members of the Syrian Brotherhood still reside in Qatar and are frequent guests on Al Jazeera, while figures like Riad Hijab live in Doha but handle all their business meetings in Riyadh — a balancing act made all the more difficult after Saudi Arabia suspended all airline flights to Qatar and closed off its land border with Doha, accusing its Emir of cuddling up to the Iranians and working with a broad coalition of terrorist groups, headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The SNC official political opposition, has been noticeably quiet amid the unfolding Qatar crisis. “The crisis will likely cast a heavy shadow on the SNC,” Akram Khuzam, former bureau chief for Al Jazeera in Moscow, told Gulf News.

Khuzam, who parted ways years ago with the controversial TV station, says the SNC will be watching whether Qatar pivots completely towards Iran — a country which backs militias in Syria fighting the opposition.

In Syria, pro-government activists on social media networks are gloating over the ostracisation of Qatar.

State-run television in Damascus is giving the story prime coverage — so are pro-Hezbollah outlets like Al Mayadeen, or their official mouthpiece, Al Manar TV.

Members of the opposition, however, are refusing to take sides — waiting to see how the crisis will unfold.

All Qatar-backed Syrian politicians approached by Gulf News have refused to comment. Hassan Hassan, a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Gulf News that even before the Qatar crisis, Saudi Arabia promised to work with the US to undermine Islamists in Syria.

“I predict the Syrian opposition will further splinter as a result of the Qatar crisis,” George Qadr, a Syrian writer in the Netherlands told Gulf News.

“Rebel groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar could wage war against each other, instead of against the government,” he added.

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