Syria’s Secular and Islamist Rebels: Who Are the Saudis and the Qataris Arming?

Out of Istanbul, the two Gulf states play a game of conflicting favorites that is getting in the way creating a unified rebel force to topple the Assad regime

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MARCO LONGARI / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian rebels take position during clashes with regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo on Sept. 14, 2012

Vast swaths of northern Syria, especially in the province of Idlib, have slipped out of the hands of President Bashar Assad, if not quite out of his reach. The area is now a de facto liberated zone, though the daily attacks by Damascus’ air force and the shelling from the handful of checkpoints and bases regime forces have fallen back to are reminders that the rebel hold on the territory remains fluid and fragile.

What is remarkable is that this substantial strip of “free” Syria has been patched together in the past 18 months by military defectors, students, tradesmen, farmers and pharmacists who have not only withstood the Syrian army’s withering fire but in some instances repelled it using a hodgepodge of limited, light weaponry. The feat is even more amazing when one considers the disarray among the outside powers supplying arms to the loosely allied band of rebels.

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As TIME reports here, disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to determining who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August, with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups — including various shades of secular and Islamist militias — under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The middlemen of the two countries operate out of Turkey, the regional military power. Ankara has been quite public with its denunciation of Assad even as it denies any involvement in shuffling weapons across the border to Syrian rebels. It claims its territory is not being used to do so. And yet, as TIME reported in June, a secretive group operates something like a command center in Istanbul, directing the distribution of vital military supplies believed to be provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and transported with the help of Turkish intelligence to the Syrian border and then to the rebels. Further reporting has revealed more details of the operation, the politics and favoritism that undermine the task of creating a unified rebel force out of the wide array of groups trying to topple the Assad regime.

(The FSA is nominally headed by Riad al-As’aad, who is based in Turkey. Neither As’aad nor his chief FSA rival General Mustafa Sheikh are party to the Istanbul control room that supplies and arms rebels who operate under the FSA banner. The two men each have their own sources of funding and are independently distributing money and weapons to selected FSA units.)

According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr. He belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus. (Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq.) The party has not made Sakr available to TIME, denies his involvement in any weapons deals and insists that Sakr is in Belgium “on leave” from his political duties.

However, he apparently was in the southern Turkish city of Antakya in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, the Lebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades — to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others — a selectivity that led to much chagrin.

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That kind of favoritism has caused problems on the ground in many ways. According to FSA sources, prominent activists and members of the Istanbul control room, Sakr was mainly responsible for designating the representatives in Syria’s 14 provinces to whom the Istanbul center would funnel small batches of light weapons — Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition — to reach FSA groups operating in each area. But the 20 or so Syrians selected to distribute armaments (some areas, like Damascus, have more than one representative) were not all effective. These representatives were “supposed to deliver the support inside, but they did not have a presence on the ground. They weren’t known,” says an influential U.S.-based Syrian activist with wide contacts inside Syria who played a role in setting up the Istanbul operations room. “I saw this weak point, so I connected Okab to people I knew were working on the ground. And I wasn’t the only one to do this. Others did too, because we wanted the room to succeed.”

But the selectivity has bred further favoritism in the distribution of arms. “Those who received goods would distribute them as they wanted. They started sending to people and saying, ‘This is a gift from me to you,’ ” a member of the control room representing eastern Syria told TIME. Other representatives were blunter, seeking pledges of loyalty from FSA groups inside the country before delivering the goods. To try to alleviate the problem, the provincial representatives were cycled in and out of the room’s operations, but the problems remained. “The weapons are all being distributed in secret,” says one fighter inside Syria, angrily, “and what is secret will stay unclear.”

The situation is compounded by Qatar’s man — a major who defected from Assad’s army, who has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment. The Qataris want to focus on aiding the regional military councils, FSA groupings within Syria set up earlier this year partly in order to get around the favoritism of the representatives. (There are at least 10 military councils scattered throughout the country.) Goods would be delivered to a council and then distributed to the brigades under its umbrella. In practice, it wasn’t quite as easy or smooth. “We were given lists by brigade leaders of their men, but we stopped believing the numbers,” says a member of the Istanbul room from Syria’s Idlib province. However, the Saudis, via Okab Sakr, appear to want to support only certain groups within the councils and not others.

“We felt that the sides giving us support weren’t on the same page,” says the control-room member from eastern Syria. “They started having side meetings with some groups.” Still, he says, “what is most important is that the guys receive weapons. Whether that is via an operations room or directly, we don’t care. Nobody knows the truth from the talk,” he says. “We have been lied to [by the international community], and we have lied to the guys inside, saying weapons would arrive in a week, in 10 days, and months have passed and some areas haven’t received supplies. So unless I see it, and see it distributed, even I don’t believe it.”

In the town of Bdeeta in Idlib province — which happens to be the hometown of Riad al-As’aad — rebel fighters complain bitterly about the lack of assistance. “We are licking our plates. We beg for salt,” says Abu Mar’iye, who heads the Martyrs of Ibditha group in the tiny town, home to some 2,000 people. “It’s not enough. Even the weapons that arrive, it’s like a drop, just enough so the fighting continues, so we can kill each other but not win.”

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The men claim that groups with higher media profiles — those that produce the most sensational snippets of amateur video, the ones with the most YouTube hits — receive the largest share of the spoils, regardless of the strategic importance of their operations. The videos serve as advertisements to solicit funding and weapons not only from the Istanbul command center but also from private donors including clerics in the Gulf with massive fundraising abilities. “They taught us, Hit, film it, I’ll support you,” says a fighter named Nasr.

Colonel Afif Suleiman, the head of the Idlib Military Council, a grouping of 16 military units from across the vast province, is unhappy with the support he gets from the control room. He is angry with Sakr, who, he says, “got involved in the issue of weapons to split our ranks, to divide the revolutionaries.” Sakr, he says, recently “chose three people on our council and supported them. I won’t name them. They are not the largest units. There is one big group, but the others are just regular ones,” Suleiman tells TIME. “He formed a rift within the council, and we are working to heal this rift. We clarified the issue to our Saudi brothers about Okab. They promised that there will be no support, either military or financial, except via the councils. This is what they recently promised us.”

To complicate things further, the Qataris reportedly have strong ties to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis “don’t want any ties to anything called Muslim Brothers,” says Ahmad Zeidan, the nom de guerre of a member of the Idlib military council. According to several sources, the large group in the Idlib military council that Sakr supported — to the aggravation of Suleiman — is Jamal Maarouf’s Martyrs of Syria Battalion, because it “has a more neutral view of the Brothers,” a U.S.-based activist says.

The other big group in the Idlib military council is Ahmad Abu Issa’s Suqoor al-Sham, an Islamist group based in Jabal al-Zawya. Abu Issa is also no great friend of the Brotherhood. On Aug. 19, he announced his withdrawal from an Islamist coalition because he said the Brotherhood politicized it by naming it after their party rather than calling it something that reflected the diverse nature of the grouping.

It’s debatable how much support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has within Syria, both politically and militarily, given that since the 1980s it has been a capital offense to be a member of the party. There has been much talk that the MB has little influence on the ground and that it will provide military and logistical support only in exchange for pledges of loyalty, part of its attempt to beef up its numbers. It’s a claim vigorously denied by Molham Aldrobi, an executive member of the MB and a founding member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the exiled political group that tried to represent the opposition early on. “This is absolutely not true. We do not discriminate based on loyalty to the MB,” he told TIME from his home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “The MB does exist in the ground. We work under the FSA umbrella,” he said, although he would not disclose the number of units, nor where within Syria the MB’s military groups were strongest. He did say, however, that there was at least one member of the MB in the Istanbul operations room.

Still, the Brotherhood is only one of the many Islamist groups operating in Syria. Some, like the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham, are not strictly part of the FSA, although in Idlib the group is part of the military council and therefore gets a smattering of support from the Istanbul control center as well. It’s a reflection of the fact that in most cases, in Idlib at least, rebel offensives are joint operations between groups of FSA fighters, Islamists, Salafists and even the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group that some claim has ties to al-Qaeda. The bulk of Ahrar al-Sham’s substantial funding reportedly comes from Kuwait.

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Similarly, some FSA groups, like Suqoor al-Sham, are also part of wider Islamist networks, largely to maximize the amount of support they can get. In a major development, Abu Issa has joined a powerful new pan-Syrian Islamist coalition called the Jabhat Tahrir Syria, or the Syrian Liberation Front, which groups several formidable, battle-hardened rebel outfits, including the famed Farouk Brigades of Homs.

Abu Issa insists he will remain part of the Idlib Military Council and that the Liberation Front will not overshadow anyone, even though it will likely be the most powerful armed body in Syria. “We acknowledge the others, just as they acknowledge us. The military councils can be a part of it,” he said. But the rebel leader bristled when asked about the influence of foreign players like Sakr. “We will not accept becoming tools for anyone, nor do we accept any living being, whether foreign or from within the revolution, acting in a manner to divide revolutionaries,” he told TIME.

Abu Issa, Suleiman and Maarouf, along with other high-profile rebel leaders from other provinces, spent much of August shuttling between Syria and Turkey to attend high-level meetings with diplomats and senior Syrian opposition. But U.S. diplomacy has yet to grasp the full complexity of the Syrian crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to snub the SNC during an August trip to Istanbul was widely viewed as belated recognition by many activists inside Syria that the exiles comprising the body have little sway or credibility. The fact is, the guys with the guns do, although the State Department denies having any direct contact with members of the FSA. (The SNC does not have a role in the arming of the rebels inside Syria, though some individual SNC members are in the Istanbul control room representing their regions.)

The Obama Administration does not deal directly with the armed opposition, but it has authorized a nonprofit organization, the Syrian Support Group (SSG), to fundraise for the FSA. The SSG is composed of Syrian exiles in the U.S. and Canada as well as a former NATO political officer.

Zeidan, of the Idlib Military Council, doesn’t seem to differentiate between official U.S. policy and that of the SSG. He says he’s been in contact with members of the SSG for months. “I know that they are afraid of something called al-Qaeda. It’s all a big lie,” says Zeidan. “They talk about Ahrar al-Sham and Suqoor al-Sham. They are conservative Islamists, but they are not extremists. Many of these groups just want support.” He adds, “We are fighting to have a democratic country, not so that we can install people with American or European or Saudi agendas … We want to topple the regime, so whoever offers us help, we will call our units whatever they want as long as they support us. We just want to finish.”

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