x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Despite increased US aid to Syria rebels unity remains elusive

Saudi Arabia is adopting a policy increasingly independent of the US when it comes to arming Syria's rebel forces.

Beirut // The United States has now stepped up financing for rebels in Damascus and southern Syria seeking the overthrow of President Bashar Al Assad, joining a much larger, more established war fund set up by Arabian Gulf states.

But limited coordination between those efforts, and the complexities of arming and equipping disparate rebel factions, means opposition unity remains elusive, even on the relatively coherent southern front.

Saudi Arabia, leading the Gulf effort, has pushed hard to get them access to advanced weapons, Syrian rebels say. Among those weapons are Russian-made missiles to knock out the regime’s air force and large-calibre, US sniper rifles, with a range of almost two kilometres, able to shoot through concrete blocks, armour and aircraft engines.

The US has thus far vetoed giving rebels this kind of firepower, according to rebels involved in the supply chain, who said Washington told them “not to even dream” about getting advanced US weapons. 

Saudi Arabia’s disquiet over US policy in the region has only grown with a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran during nuclear negotiations.

That frustration recently led Saudi Arabia to adopt a more independent policy regarding rebels, including a programme last month to train rebel fighters on anti-aircraft weapons systems.

“The Saudis asked us in a secret way, away from the Americans, to nominate people for training in Turkey on anti-aircraft tactics and weapons and they have assured us we will get the weapons we need, even if it does not comply with the Americans’ wishes,” said a Syrian rebel.

“The Saudis are now working behind the Americans’ backs,” he said, something he recounted the Saudis as accepting put their relationship with the US at risk.

Riyadh’s twin concerns these days are that they weaken the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), a group inspired by Al Qaeda, and do not give money to groups sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, Syrian rebels said.

Another leading rebel commander said Saudi Arabia was putting money directly into the Islamic Front, a coalition of powerful militant groups outside of the western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) network and the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which was set up in December 2012, partly on western insistence to be the FSA’s chain of command.

The Islamic Front is more hardline in its ideology than the groups favoured by the US but it is less militant than Isil, one of its rival groups. 

In December, the Islamic Front took over the SMC’s warehouses in northern Syria, prompting the US to halt supplies to rebels there, although Washington later said it was open to talks with the group, despite its willingness to cooperate closely with Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official Syria affiliate.

As money flows into Syria’s southern front from Washington and the Arabian Gulf, much of it is bypassing the SMC and its representative in southern Syria, the increasingly out-of-favour Deraa Military Council (DMC), rebels said.

Even US funding is going to groups that do not follow to the DMC, according to rebels, indicating that Washington is increasingly circumventing the collapsing FSA chain of command it helped establish.

“There are new efforts to group all rebel factions [excluding Al Nusra and Isil] together because the Americans do not want anyone operating independently,” said a Syrian rebel commander.

But previous efforts to forge such a unity, capable of matching that shown by Mr Al Assad and his allies, Hizbollah, Iran and Russia, have failed, with the US deeply wary of becoming more deeply embroiled in the Syria war.

psands@thenational.ae