Gulf states warned against arming Syria rebels

by Ian Black and Julian Borger

Saudi Arabia and Qatar urged not to supply weapons to rebels for fear of undermining UN efforts to end crisis

Syria protests
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Handout/REUTERS

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are being urged not to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad for fear of undermining UN-backed efforts to negotiate a political end to the crisis.

Fears that the wealthy Gulf states are preparing to implement a decision to equip the armed opposition to Assad have prompted warnings about the danger of exacerbating violence that has already cost 10,000 dead in the last year.

The Guardian understands that the Syrian president's most implacable Arab enemies have been moving towards more direct, if still largely covert, support for the opposition but are now under heavy international pressure to hold off.

British officials see no evidence that large-scale government weapons transfers have taken place yet. But Arab sources claim the normally vigilant Saudis have turned a blind eye as funds raised by Syrian businessmen in the Gulf have been used to buy arms that have been smuggled into Syria by Saudi allies in Lebanon.

According to the Arab sources a bigger official effort may be imminent, with one citing reports of Syrian opposition figures meeting Saudi intelligence officers in Europe and Turkey to discuss specific needs. "The decision to arm the rebels has been taken in principle," said Mustafa Alani, of the Saudi-funded Gulf Institute of Strategic Studies in Dubai, "but it has not yet been implemented".

Qatar, which led support for the Libyan rebels, has drawn up plans for a substantial programme to supply tens of millions of dollars worth of sophisticated weapons like anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

"This is a major programme. They will not do things by halves," said a Doha-based source who was briefed on the plans. "The thinking is: If you wait another six months, this will slide into a full-on civil war that will be impossible to contain."

But the plans have been met with both public and private resistance from the international community.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned on Wednesday that the rebels would not be able to defeat Assad's forces even if they were "armed to the teeth".

Iraq has been outspoken in opposing any arming of the Syrian rebels. Egypt and Algeria are also against it on the grounds it could fuel a sectarian civil war.

William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, cautioned at the weekend that if Kofi Annan's six-point plan failed then "pressure would increase" to arm the opposition. Hague spoke shortly after Saud al-Faisal, the veteran Saudi foreign minister, insisted it was a "duty" to do just that.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is reported to have raised her objections when she was in Riyadh. In recent days, western diplomats say, the Saudis have opted not to mention the subject and are now "having second thoughts".

The rift with the Arab hawks was clear at last weekend's Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul. The group reiterated support for a ceasefire and a "Syrian-led" political process. But it refused to endorse Gulf pledges to pay the salaries of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed wing of the opposition, and to encourage defections.

Little hard information is available about FSA weapons, which are either stolen by defectors or smuggled in from Lebanon, Iraq or Turkey. Syrian sources say the priority is anti-tank missiles to target the regime's armour. Heading the wish list is the Russian-made Kornet, selling for around $500,000 on the black market and available across the former Soviet Union.

Financed by Qatar, Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi have brought weapons and experience to Syria, where the Kornet is used by the regime's forces.

Gulf agreement to fund the Syrian National Council to pay FSA salaries is seen as providing cover for arms purchases. "FSA people are in Istanbul right now waiting for deliveries," one opposition activist told the Guardian. Cash has already been distributed via Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC chairman, to fighters in Deraa and Damascus, the activist added.

"If I am financing the SNC and it decides to divert money for buying arms then that is none of my concern," said Alani.

But according to one assessment, statements by the Saudis and Qataris may be more about exerting psychological pressure on Assad than genuine readiness to arm his enemies. Domestic factors are also at work. "The Saudi government wants to exercise some control over the Syrian revolution," said Abdelaziz al-Khamis, an independent analyst. "They want to show people they care about Sunnis being killed in Syria. They don't want a lot of young Saudis going off to wage jihad in Syria like they did in Iraq."

The US, which is concerned about weapons going to extremist or jihadi-type groups, has made clear it will supply only "non-lethal" equipment, with a focus on secure communications vital for fighters currently forced to use the easily monitored Syrian mobile phone network.

The situation is complicated by the fact that neither Jordan nor Turkey, which have land borders with Syria, are likely to allow transfers of significant armaments.

"Turkey make a lot of noise but what it does is very carefully limited," a diplomat based in the region said, adding that Ankara was unwilling to enter into a proxy war in Syria again Iran. In Jordan, the Hashemite royal family has its own reasons for fearing the Syrian opposition.

The logistical difficulties in smuggling any supplies into Syria were illustrated by a recent attempt by businessmen to send satellite phones to the areas worst hit by the Syrian army to coordinate humanitarian relief. Shipping 200 satellite receivers and transmitters through Turkey or Jordan would have faced insuperable bureaucratic obstacles, the businessmen discovered. They decided to fly the equipment to Kurdistan and smuggle it from there but the Belgian manufacturer pulled out of the deal on the grounds it could not be exported to Syria under EU sanctions.

Still, weapons themselves are unlikely to tip the balance against the regime. "Armed with modern weaponry, enough ammunitions and better communication systems, rebels surely could deal setbacks to the Syrian military," commented Emile Hokayem of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. "However, as the battles of recent months demonstrate, they are unable to hold ground for long. Doing so exposes them to massive counter-attacks by loyalist forces and endangers the lives of often sympathetic civilians stuck in the middle as happened in the Baba Amr district of Homs city.