The Shadow War Behind Syria’s Rebellion: Foreign Backers Jockey for Influence in Turkey

While the diplomatic grouping known as the Friends of Syria met in the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday to discuss a U.S.-Russian plan for peace talks, a low-key yet perhaps equally important gathering was being quietly held in Istanbul

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Medyan Dairieh / ZUMA PRESS

Syrian rebels walk to reposition near Mena airport, in Aleppo, Syria, on May 22, 2013.

While the diplomatic grouping known as the Friends of Syria met in the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday to discuss a U.S.-Russian plan for peace talks, a low-key yet perhaps equally important gathering was being quietly held in Istanbul between Saudi officials and half of the 30 members of the Free Syrian Army’s Higher Military Command, which claims to represent most of the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The informal talks, which were held at a seaside hotel, marked the first gathering of the rebel group’s Military Command and Saudi officials since, according to senior members of the Military Command, Saudi Arabia stepped up earlier this month to become the main source of arms to the rebels. In so doing they nudged aside the smaller Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which had been the main supplier of weapons to the opposition since early 2012. Saudi officials have simply been meeting with the rebels on their own, without involving the Qataris.

The change is significant because Qatar and Saudi Arabia each favor different rebel factions. The Qataris have backed more Islamist rebel groups, while the Saudis—despite Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative form of government—have opted to support more moderate groups that may have an Islamist hue but are not considered conservative. The strong conservative Islamist current within rebel ranks may be weakened if support is increased to more moderate factions.

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The Saudi support for the more moderate rebel groups may seem at odds with Saudi Arabia’s own austere ideology but in the past, when the Saudis have backed ultraconservative Islamist militants (including supporting jihadists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s) they have also experienced blowback domestically, notably when the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was once a Saudi citizen, branded the ruling House of Saud apostates.

In early 2012, the two Gulf powerhouses, which are frequently political rivals, were instrumental in setting up a secretive group that operated something like a command center in Istanbul, with representatives from across Syria tasked with funneling free and vital military supplies through Turkey (with the help of Turkish intelligence and Western backing) and across the border into Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar had representatives in the command center.

A rift in the command center between Qatar and Saudi Arabia emerged in August of last year, with the Saudi and Qatari representatives backing different factions from among the plethora of armed groups on the ground in Syria. By September, when a group of senior military defectors and the Saudi-based Salafi sheikh Adnan al-Arour set up the Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils, the command center had more or less crumbled and was superseded by the Joint Command, which was primarily backed by Qatar, while the Saudis continued to pick and choose who they wanted to work with.

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The Joint Command did not last long. By December, more than 550 Syrian fighting men gathered in Antalya, Turkey, to elect 261 representatives who in turn voted for the 30 members of the Higher Military Command, the current claimant to the leadership of the Syrian insurgency, although nationwide conservative Islamist groups like the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra are not part of it.

Many of the senior rebel commanders who were gathered on Wednesday – representing the so-called five fronts of the conflict (northern, southern, central/western, eastern and the central city of Homs) – had traveled from inside Syria to attend, although the head of the body, Brigadier General Salim Idris, was in Amman.

The talks aimed to strengthen channels of communication and were an opportunity for the rebels to voice their frustrations with the arming process. “We need to get our house in order,” said one commander, who like all of those interviewed spoke on condition that neither his name nor his area of operations be cited, due to the sensitivity of the meeting. “We are discussing the chaos of the [process of] arming, that there are warlords who accepted weapons and sat back and didn’t fight, they just amassed the weapons. We are sending them [the Saudis] the message that you made mistakes, and so did we. Some people became warlords and aren’t working. Some people are selling weapons, others say they have fighting groups but they don’t.”

All of the commanders TIME spoke to were optimistic that the Saudis would ferry more help to more moderate groups, but few thought the Qataris would stop supplying their favored battalions. “The difference is that the battalions who are against Jabhat al-Nusra will be strengthened,” said one young commander. “A fight with Jabhat al-Nusra is coming, we can no longer delay it.” That’s an unattractive prospect to many in the opposition, which was formed to fight the regime, not fellow rebels.

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A Saudi representative in the meeting was at pains to stress that there was no such thing as a “separate Saudi and Qatari path,” according to two participants.

Some field commanders expected a working plan to come out of the meeting, or tangible support in the form of money or weapons they could return to Syria with. The only support that was offered – 300,000 bullets, an undisclosed number of rocket-propelled grenades and tank shells – was earmarked for the raging battle in the rebel-held city of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, where government troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hizballah were battling to wrest control of the strategically important city. The participants in the meeting were also reportedly given $5,000 to cover their expenses, much to the chagrin of several of them who said while they appreciated the Saudis covering their costs they had more urgent uses for the donated funds, including medical care for their wounded — and weapons.

“I’m in shock, I’m embarrassed to go back to my men empty-handed,” said one. “I need ammunition. It’s always promises, promises, but this time I was hoping for something more from the Saudis. Sometimes the Qataris offer you support immediately.”

Still, most of those TIME spoke to were cautiously optimistic that the Saudis would soon funnel more money and weapons their way. One, however, said past experience kept his enthusiasm in check. “I want to know, are we going to open a new page, or not?” The answer cannot come soon enough for Syria’s rebel forces.

MORE: The Battle for Qusayr: Syria’s Most Dangerous Front