Syria Is Now Saudi Arabia’s Problem
The battle for a town on the Lebanese border marks the kingdom's first attempt to lead Syria's fractured opposition.
Hezbollah can finally claim a victory in Syria. The town of Qusayr, adjacent to the Lebanese border, has fallen to the Lebanese militia after nearly a month of fierce battles with Syrian rebels. Dozens of Hezbollah’s fighters have been killed, despite air cover and ground support from Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The Qusayr battle has been constantly, and wrongly, described as a turning point in the Syrian war. Why has this small town of some 30,000 residents become "strategic," as it is constantly described in the press, all of a sudden? The town had previously been run by its Sunni residents for more than a year, with little mention of its strategic benefits.
Hezbollah’s open military intervention in Syria partly explains the publicity the Qusayr battle has received. As a result, the "Party of God" has lost much of its political and ideological capital in the region — a capital the militia had painstakingly acquired from its three-decade career of "resisting" Israel.
But beyond the supposed military benefits of Qusayr, the battle for the town carried important consequences for the balance of power within the Syrian opposition. Qusayr is arguably the first battle in Syria to be completely sponsored by Saudi Arabia, marking the kingdom’s first foray outside its sphere of influence along the Jordanian border. Riyadh has now taken over Qatar’s role as the rebels’ primary patron: In one sense, the Saudis can also claim a victory in Qusayr, as they have successfully put various rebel forces under the command of their ally in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idriss.
Although the Syrian rebels received military aid from various countries and private donors, Qatar initially emerged as the main sponsor of the opposition. Its alliance with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood helped it control the political opposition and the armed rebels’ most prominent factions, including Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo.
But under increased pressure from the Untied States, Qatar has recently handed over the "Syrian dossier" to Saudi Arabia. Members of the Syrian opposition coalition made a two-day visit last month to Riyadh for the first time to coordinate with the Saudis. The opposition’s delegates were asked by Riyadh to restructure the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the opposition, which they bitterly did three weeks later.
In response, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its aid. Riyadh provided the rebels with 35 tons of weapons, though the kingdom failed to provide them with the better-quality arms the FSA’s chief of staff had requested. Significantly, Liwa al-Tawhid joined the battles in Qusayr — a significant step, because the militia had always worked closely, and almost exclusively, with the Qataris and the Brotherhood. According to Gulf sources close to the Syrian opposition, Liwa al-Tawhid’s commander, Abdulqader al-Saleh, has recently met with representatives of Saudi intelligence to coordinate military activities. Rebel fighters from Aleppo’s Military Council and from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor also joined the battles.
The kingdom’s clients have been making progress on the political level as well: Idriss has recently acquired wide-ranging powers within the Syrian National Coalition. Sources familiar with the opposition’s talks in Istanbul last month told me the general was given a veto over the 14 provincial representatives from Syria’s provinces, in addition to the 15 seats given to the Free Syrian Army. These combined 29 seats — added to the eight seats given to the opposition figure Michel Kilo and 13 to the Democratic List, an alliance essentially backed by Riyadh — significantly expanded Saudi Arabia’s influence on the coalition and undermined the previous dominance of the Brotherhood.
The opposition’s talks in Istanbul lasted for more than a week, and the coalition’s Brotherhood-dominated General Assembly first refused to accept the expansion plan, despite ferocious pressure from Western ambassadors and representatives from the Gulf states. But according to Gulf sources, the coalition members were given an ultimatum a day before they finally accepted the expansion plan — either accept it or Idriss would announce the creation of an FSA political wing that would supersede the coalition altogether. The General Assembly members backed down and accepted an even worse deal than what had initially been proposed.
To be sure, the Saudis could not have bolstered their leverage within the opposition without help from countries like the United States and Jordan. Riyadh works closely with almost all the players in the Syrian conflict, barring Qatar and Turkey. Contrary to popular belief, the kingdom supports moderate groups within the Syrian rebels to counter the influence of the Brotherhood and its Qatari patrons. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s increased influence may help temper some of the rising fears of extremist trends within the armed opposition. Of course, the kingdom also supports Salafi-leaning groups to counter jihadi groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Washington has recently stepped up financial monitoring efforts to ensure that any aid to the Syrian rebels goes through Idriss, according to informed sources from the Gulf. These measures will of course be difficult to enforce, owing to the activities of private donors with established channels with the Syrian rebels — and also due to the poorly regulated financial institutions of some countries, such as Kuwait. But they nevertheless mark an attempt to empower Idriss, and consequently the Saudis.
Nonetheless, Qatar can still pull a few strings within the opposition. A Syrian activist told me that Turkey-based representatives from Qatar had declined to meet a rebel group from Idlib a week before the opposition’s talks in Istanbul. But after the expansion of the coalition, the representatives called the group back and apparently provided it with the ammunition it needed. Doha’s influence may have decreased, but it can still use its established channels to maintain leverage over armed groups.
As it consolidates its takeover of the opposition, another factor that favors the Saudis is its tentative rapprochement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met last month with the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammed Tayfour, for the first time. The Brotherhood had requested the meeting to mend its relations with the kingdom, which had shunned the group and stated privately on more than one occasion that it rejects the Brotherhood’s dominance of Syria. The meeting was not an indication that the kingdom has opened it heart to the Brotherhood, as some have argued, but was meant to contain the group as Riyadh takes over from Qatar.
Still, the Saudis currently have little leeway to exercise their newfound influence. Washington and Moscow are still intent on organizing a "Geneva 2" conference, intended to bring together representatives from the Syrian regime and the opposition to reach a negotiated settlement. The preparations for Geneva 2 have meant that mil
itary options, such as increased aid for the rebels, are on pause until the talks take place or fail.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s victory in Qusayr was inevitable, but not the end of the story. Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the battles in this formerly obscure town marks a new beginning of warfare in Syria — one many hope will add a sense of unity to rebel ranks and empower moderate opposition forces.