Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Struggle for Influence in Syria

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Struggle for Influence in Syria

By Eric Draitser

This week’s resignation
of Ghassan Hitto, the so-called “Prime Minister in waiting” of the Syrian
Opposition Coalition, coupled with the July 6th election of Ahmed
Assi al-Jarba to head the umbrella coalition of US-supported proxy groups
attempting to topple the Assad government, has revealed further cracks in the
edifice of the imperialist assault on Syria.

Qatar’s Man in the Middle 

Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian expatriate and technocrat from
Texas, was seen by most informed observers as the darling of the Muslim
Brotherhood and Qatar.  As
by AFP shortly after Hitto’s election:

Some coalition members described
Hitto as a consensus candidate pleasing both the opposition’s Islamist and
liberal factions.  But some of the 70-odd
Coalition members withdrew from the consultations before the vote could take
place, accusing opposition heavyweight Muslim Brotherhood of imposing Hitto as
a candidate. 

Indeed, the imposition of Hitto as the political face of the
foreign-backed opposition was seen by many inside the opposition and around the
world as a power-play by Qatar to control the direction of the conflict in
Syria and establish Doha as the real center of power in a post-Assad Syria.

This connection between Hitto, the Muslim Brotherhood and
Qatar was the source of much tension within the opposition.  The NY
reported that:

 [Hitto] faced several challenges: he was seen
by some rebels and activists as out of touch with the country, and some members
of the often-squabbling coalition complained that he was a favorite of the
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and of its main foreign backer Qatar.  Many in the opposition say Qatar wields too
much influence in the movement.

What became clear during the course of Hitto’s short tenure
as the public face of the foreign-backed opposition was that he was less a
political leader than a proxy of Qatar and the United States.  This despite what can only be called
competition between its allies in Doha and Riyadh who at times collaborate and
at other times compete for power and influence among the extremist jihadi elements
throughout the Middle East and North Africa. 
Essentially then, Hitto must be understood as a placeholder, a man whose
responsibility was not to lead, but simply to act as a foothold for the
al-Thani regime and the Muslim Brotherhood within the leadership of the
opposition.  The goal was of course to
have Hitto in place for the potential fall of Assad, so that Qatar could
immediately secure its control over the country in a post-Assad scenario.

Saudis Reclaiming
Dominant Role?

Hitto’s resignation places even more significance on last
week’s election of Ahmed Assi al-Jarba as head of the Syrian
Opposition Coalition
.  Whereas Hitto
was understood to be a proxy of Qatar, Jarba can be correctly characterized as
a proxy of Saudi Arabia.  As McClatchy


            Jarba is a chief of the Shammar
tribe, one of the Arab world’s most powerful clans with members stretching from
southern Turkey to Saudi Arabia…He was jailed early in the revolt against
Assad…After being released from prison in August 2012, he fled to Saudi Arabia
where his tribal connections put him into close touch with senior members of
the Saudi intelligence services.

It should be noted that the innocuous-sounding phrase “close
touch with senior members of Saudi intelligence” is a euphemism for Saudi agent, which is precisely what Jarba
is.  Note the fact that, like Hitto,
Jarba has already stated publicly his opposition to peace talks with the Assad
government, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence that benefits Riyadh and
Doha and costs more innocent Syrians their lives. 

Jarba has said that “Geneva in these circumstances is
impossible.”  However, one must consider
precisely which “circumstances” he was referring to.  Keen political observers who have been
following events in Syria for some time understand the “circumstances” to be
the continued military
of the foreign-backed rebels and jihadis by the forces of the Assad
government.  Jarba and his Saudi handlers
understand quite clearly that they must first achieve substantive military
victories on the ground before they can even pay lip service to peace talks.

It is precisely this desperate need for tactical victories by
the rebels that has driven Saudi Arabia to become even more involved in
fomenting this war.  Using Jarba as their
proxy, the Saudis have attempted to launch a new and perhaps even deadlier phase
of the war against Syria.  In his first
two days as head of the coalition, Jarba has already announced
that the rebels will soon receive “a new shipment of sophisticated weapons from
Saudi Arabia” as well as proposing a truce during Ramadan. 

However, these announcements should be interpreted as
cynical ploys designed to buy time for Saudi arms to reach their destination
and for the rebels to train in their use. 
Jarba said as much when he proclaimed to Reuters,
“I will not rest until I procure the advanced weapons needed to hit back at
Assad and his allies.  I give myself one
month to achieve what I am intent to do.” 
So, while proposing a one-month truce under the cover of religious piety
in the observance of Ramadan, Jarba gives himself exactly that same one month
window to procure advanced weapons.  The hypocrisy
and duplicity needs no further explanation.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have a complicated relationship, at
times friendly and at other times acrimonious. 
Throughout the course of the destabilization and subversion of Syria,
the two countries have collaborated in the funding, arming, and importation of
jihadi elements from throughout the Muslim world.  They have both been linked to intelligence
agencies of the imperial Western powers while maintaining close contact with
terror networks foreign and domestic.  As
such, both countries have played the indispensable role of intermediary between
these disparate forces.  However, now
that the threat to their terrorist proxies in Syria is an existential one, and
Assad victories become ever more decisive, it seems the bond between the monarchies
is fraying.  The recent changes in the
political leadership of the so-called opposition merely reflect this.

Eric Draitser is the founder of  He is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City.  You can email him at