Qatar: Syria rebels' tiny ally in the background

DOHA, Qatar — As the hot sun cut through the morning haze of the seemingly perpetual summer of this Persian Gulf city, commanders of Syria's Western-backed opposition forces convened for a series of high-level meetings.

The participants, leaders of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, were desperately engaged in damage control after a loose coalition of Islamist groups had taken over the council's warehouses on the Syria-Turkey border, seizing U.S. donations and prompting a suspension of American aid.

The choice of Doha, Qatar's capital, was not a strange one.

The tiny emirate of Qatar, home to the world's third-largest natural gas reserves and its highest per capita wealth, was once the opposition's staunchest and most vocal supporter. In a conflict largely fueled by the financial and military support of outside patrons, Qatar's deep pockets were a formidable asset.

Even now, although it has been eclipsed in influence by neighboring Saudi Arabia, Qatar plays an outsized role in the Syrian conflict.

"Yes, Saudi Arabia has played a more prominent role recently," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a spinoff of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But Qatar's role, although in volume it perhaps has been a little bit less, is certainly … significant."

Buoyed by its successful intervention in Libya — where it delivered arms, cash and other aid to rebels fighting to oust Moammar Kadafi — the Qatari government in 2011 turned its attention to Syria. Funneling millions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to the nascent Syrian rebel movement, it was instrumental in the formation of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army as well as its parent group, the Syrian National Coalition, even going so far as to allow the rebels to open an embassy in Doha.

The tiny emirate, long overshadowed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, is aggressively seeking to enhance its regional and even global stature — not always successfully.

It actively supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in a bid to gain influence with the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi, which was overthrown in July. In Syria, its support had a bigger military element, with Qatar lavishing money and arms on rebel brigades such as Ahfad Rasul, one of the many Islamist groups operating in Syria's northern provinces.

Meanwhile, Qatar mounted a massive propaganda war against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad through Al Jazeera satellite news channel, based in Doha, with pictures of mutilated corpses alternating with calls for holy war by one of the channel's star hosts, the Egyptian cleric Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi.

But with extremist militant groups emerging as the most effective rebel fighters on the Syrian battlefield, many criticized Qatar for giving aid, perhaps inadvertently, to radical Islamists.

"The data collection was just not what it could have been. They didn't know how much was going to each group," said Michael Stephens, director of the Doha-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

Qatar also ran into trouble with its unflinching support of Ghassan Hitto, a little known Texas-based tech entrepreneur whose selection as prime minister of the rebels' political leadership began to cause tension with Saudi Arabia and other allies. Hitto later resigned, but the damage had been done.

Qataris said they faced resentment and animosity throughout the region.

"We were told to say that we're from Oman, to pretend that we're not Qataris, if we were asked," said Mohammad, a 27-year-old employee of state-run Qatar Petroleum, who asked to be identified by only his first name for fear of ostracism in the small, close-knit country.

In July, Ahmad Jarba, from Syria's eastern region and widely seen as Saudi Arabia's man, was appointed head of the Syrian National Coalition, the rebels' political arm. The policies of a chastised Qatar would now fall in line with those of Saudi Arabia, with Doha again eclipsed by the government in Riyadh.

According to Stephens, the Qataris "got themselves into a conflict in which the world's great powers were involved, and Qatar has only one thing, which is lots of money. And you need a lot more than just lots of money.... The game got too complicated."

Still, by all accounts Qatar remains a hub of support for the Syrian opposition, with some reports estimating that more than $3 billion in Qatari aid has gone to the opposition since the conflict began in March 2011.

Qatari citizens have been galvanized into action as well.

Unlike another gulf kingdom, Kuwait, whose lax financing laws have long put it on the radar of U.S. officials concerned about funding of terrorist groups via Islamic charities, Qatar has adopted a more formalized structure for aid to Syria. Though individual Qataris are discouraged from making donations to the Syrian cause, the government has provided avenues for support.

Mohammad, the Qatar Petroleum employee, said workers there were encouraged to donate through the company's intranet, with the money deducted from a donor's salary.

"They just have a 'Donate to Syria' button, and then they have pictures of dead babies. Underneath you can see how much has been given that month," he said.

While Qatar's role appears to have diminished since a change in leadership in June, Saudi Arabia has taken on a more visible role, saying it seeks all-out victory for the rebels and the removal of Assad. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that support for the rebels would continue "for as long as necessary."

It's a position that is putting the kingdom increasingly at odds with Western officials, who refuse to see "that the [Syrian] regime itself remains the greatest weapon of mass destruction of all," the ambassador said.

Qatar has been stepping back from its confrontational stance, at least publicly. Qatari officials recently met with Iranian representatives, and there has been a thaw in relations with the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia. Both Iran and Hezbollah are strong supporters of the Assad government.

Despite the change in appearances, analysts agree that Qatar is still deeply invested in the Syrian outcome.

"Qatari support," Stephens said, "has only changed in how loud it is."

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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