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The Saudi-Qatari dispute in Syria

The current failure in Syria is saddening and its repercussions dangerous. It comes amid the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of which support the Syrian people in the face of massacres by the Assad regime and its allies.

Syria is one of the reasons behind this dispute. While Saudi Arabia supports national parties such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Qatar backs armed groups that are internationally listed as terrorist, as it does in other war zones such as Libya.

Saudi-Qatari conflict began early in Syria, but it was a silent crisis. Both countries were convinced that stability in Syria and the region were not possible with the presence of the decaying Assad regime, and surely not after its horrific crimes against civilians. In addition, the regime consolidated Iran’s military control in Syria, threatening regional security.

The regime destroyed cities and displaced civilians, while the world feared that Syria would turn into a terrorist hub. Yet Qatar continued to support Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar Al-Sham. The dispute between Doha and Riyadh escalated to include managing the opposition within the coalition committee. This revealed Qatar’s real intentions, which Saudi Arabia fears because Doha is keen on attracting and supporting jihadists, especially Saudis.

Since the Qatari coup in the 1990s, Riyadh has suspected that Doha is targeting the Kingdom by supporting its opponents financially and in the media, including the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq, Doha played a dangerous role in funding the so-called resistance, especially foreign fighters, including Saudis. They would gather in Syria and be sent to Iraq. Doha and Damascus cooperated for almost 10 years in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza, falling out a year before the Arab Spring.

During the Syrian revolution, there were increased Saudi suspicions that Qatar was continuing to support Saudi fighters when it adopted terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra, which is blacklisted by Riyadh. The Saudi Interior Ministry publicly warned citizens not to engage in the Syrian war, and asked Turkey to prevent their passage through its territory.

Since the Qatari coup in the 1990s, Riyadh has suspected that Doha is targeting the Kingdom by supporting its opponents financially and in the media, including the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Prominent Saudi fugitive Abulallah Al-Muhaisini is from a wealthy family, as was Bin Laden, and he was supported by Doha. Al-Muhaisini escaped to Syria in 2013 in defiance of the Saudi ban. Qatar has looked after him as part of its funding of Al-Nusra.

It might seem contradictory that the Kingdom backs the Syrian revolution but opposes the support that foreign fighters receive. But it opposes the latter because of its repercussions on Saudi Arabia. Riyadh was against foreign fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew, and opposed them during the wars in Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq.

Syria’s war is a terrorist nightmare that includes Tehran, its militias and Daesh. Iran’s dominance over Syria and its slaughter of Syrians is unacceptable to Riyadh, while Qatar considers Syria as just another arena to foster extremist movements. Doha thinks it can use extremists to its benefit in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. By doing so, Qatar has destroyed the region.

Doha’s extremists have damaged the Syrian revolution against tyranny more than regime troops and Iranian militias have. Qatar has imported groups that believe in slaughter and captivity. At the start, we thought there was Saudi paranoia over Doha and that Riyadh was overreacting. But Qatar’s repeated practices and its strange insistence on supporting extremists proves that this is state policy.

• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.