How the Saudi-Qatari Rivalry Has Fueled the War in Syria

The competing interests and tactics of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been an overlooked dimension in the war that has torn Syria apart since 2011.

TOPSHOT - A Syrian man helps evacuate an injured victim following Syrian government air strikes on the Eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 20, 2018.Syrian regime and allied forces battled to suppress the last pockets of resistance in and around Damascus while the beleaguered Kurds in the north braced for further Turkish advances. Assad has in recent months brought swathes of territory back under his control thanks to heavy Russian involvement, as well as support from other forces such as the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia. Eastern Ghouta's main town of Douma remains under rebel control but even as a trickle of emergency medical evacuations was scheduled to continue, the regime continued to pound the enclave. / AFP PHOTO / HAMZA AL-AJWEH (Photo credit should read HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian man helps evacuate an injured victim following Syrian government air strikes on the Eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 20, 2018. Photo: Hamza Al-Ajweh/AFP/Getty Images

The Western debate over the protracted Syrian war has often taken place online or, worse still, on social media. As a result, it has become increasingly simplified and polarized to the point where only knee-jerk rooting and cheering, but not analysis or substantive discussion, is possible. Propaganda posing as analysis has dominated the discourse on Syria.

As a result, there are now two dominant narratives regarding the causes of the war. While they contain some grains of truth, both narratives are equally simplistic and thus, appealing for social media wars, but also quite misleading.

One view — promoted by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its supporters — holds that Western powers and Gulf regimes plotted the overthrow of the Assad government, instigated protests against it, and hired the rebels to do the job on the battlefield. In this telling, the conflict in Syria is primarily the byproduct of outside agitators.

The second narrative holds that the underlying causes of the war can be explained by the legitimate grievances expressed by the Syrian people against the regime, and that they revolted against it in the era of Arab uprisings. This narrative demands that one view the violence against the regime as a byproduct of legitimate protest by ordinary Syrian citizens against their repressive dictator.

Both sides are adamant about the validity of their narrative and the falsehood of the counternarrative.  In reality, both narratives are rather valid — simultaneously so.

The Syrian people had indeed accumulated plenty of grievances against the repressive dynastic rule of the Assad family and were fed up with a series of failed promises. Meanwhile, the Gulf regimes and the U.S. were plotting a regime change operation in Syria, dating from at least 2006.

But these two endlessly recycled narratives obscure a critical cause of the Syrian conflict and the longevity of the war: namely, the intense competition between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Qatar on the other. The struggle between these two foreign powers has been a crucial dimension of the war — and their struggle and involvement has only been made possible with full U.S. and European Union support, although different Western countries sided more with one side or the other at different periods of the conflict.

To begin with, media coverage and debate about the Syrian war — in the East and West — have been largely colored with the propaganda interests of both Qatari and Saudi regimes. Both regimes control — directly or indirectly — almost all of the various media of the Arab world.

Beyond their media ownership, both regimes have been able to control or influence the narratives of Western journalists and pundits through heavy investments in the elite Washington foreign policy community, especially through think tanks and PR firms. Think tanks in Washington, such as the Brookings Institution, the Middle East Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are notoriously awash in funding from Gulf regimes and thus, reflect their agenda.

Most of the Middle East experts at leading think tanks who most prolifically commented on the war in Syria were, unsurprisingly, split along the Saudi-Qatari divide. The United Arab Emirates also invested in D.C. think tanks, and that regime’s policies (on Syria at least) mirrored those of the Saudi regime.

Not since the rise of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have Middle Eastern governments been able to wield such influence in the nation’s capital. To be sure, AIPAC would have fought to undermine the influence of these newer Gulf players to shape the discourse had their views on Syria not been congruent with Israel’s interests. But when it comes to Syria, AIPAC and its affiliates largely echo the propaganda clichés of the Gulf state regimes.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (L) stands alongside Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (C) and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia 08 June at Damascus Airport at the end of a two-day meeting in the Syrian capital. The leaders called for an Arab summit later this month in Cairo to discuss the future of the peace process with Israel, warning Israelis against any step that could endanger peace. AFP PHOTO/SANA POOL / AFP PHOTO / SANA POOL (Photo credit should read SANA POOL/AFP/Getty Images)

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, stands alongside Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, center, and Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, on June 8, 1996, at Damascus Airport at the end of a two-day meeting in the Syrian capital.

Photo: Sana Pool/AFP/Getty Images

The competition between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in Syria is steeped in history. Both have had longstanding ties to the Syrian regime.

Many often forget that the Saudi regime was a benefactor of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, for close to three decades, and that the two regimes’ interests often converged in the region. Examples of an Assad-Saudi convergence include the crackdown against the Palestinian resistance and Lebanese left in 1976, the 1991 war on Iraq, the coordination of policies in the U.S.-sponsored peace plans, and the enmity to Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Saudi-Syrian convergence during these years was also important to the U.S. role in the region. American officials relied on the Saudi regime to sway Syrian foreign policy through the Saudis’ financial largesse. Hafez al-Assad was as a key member of the Syrian-Saudi-Egyptian axis that formed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and this axis dominated Arab politics.

It was in the 1990s that the interests of Qatar and Saudi Arabia diverged. By the late 1990s, Qatar was basically isolated due to its conflict with Saudi Arabia (the new Qatari emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, had overthrown his pro-Saudi father).

Grudgingly, Qatar became a cautious member of the mumana`ah camp (literally “refusalness,” which opposed compromising positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict), while it also normalized relations with Israel and hosted U.S. troops. The new Qatari emir had accused the Saudi regime of trying to overthrow him in order to reinstall his father back to the throne (the emir’s accusation was most likely true).

When Bashar al-Assad began consolidating his power in Syria, he shifted its foreign policy in Lebanon against the interests of Saudi Arabia and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. As a result, Qatar became Assad’s natural ally, while Saudi Arabia pulled away from the Syrian regime. This is the divergence and competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that has shaped the war in Syria to this day.

With Bashar in power, the Saudi regime has sought to undermine Syrian dominance in Lebanon (Syrian dominance over Lebanon had been sponsored since at least 1989 by the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia). Indeed, Saudi Arabia was part of the coalition which, in 2004, pushed for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, designed to end the Syrian role in Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia sought to bring about regime change in Syria, relying on key elements in the ruling elite (mostly top advisers from the era of Hafez).

During this time, Saudi Arabia’s favorite Lebanese politician, Hariri, began clashing with Bashar. As a result, the Saudi break with the Syrian regime was almost complete, and the Saudi-sponsored clique inside Syria, also supported by Hariri, escalated their plot against Bashar. This was the beginning of the end of Syrian dominance in Lebanon. The discovery of this plot was most likely what brought an end to Hariri’s life in 2005 (he was assassinated).

As the Saudis broke from Bashar al-Assad, Qatar had other plans for the region. The Qatari regime was emboldened by the weaknesses of Saudi foreign policy and the rise of Recep Erdogan, its new ally in Turkey.  Both Qatar and Turkey developed a plan to spread the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region — from Palestine to Tunisia.

Those two regimes did not instigate the Arab uprisings. All Arab uprisings started spontaneously due to legitimate citizen complaints about repression, torture, socio-economic injustices, and Arab foreign policies being subservient to Western interests. But the two new competing alliances in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel on one hand, and Qatar and Turkey on the other — sought to exploit those uprisings for their own interests.

Demonstrators take to the streets of Wadi Khaled, on the Lebanese-Syrian border, during the Crawling Friday protest against the Syrian regime on December 30, 2011, waving Syria's old national flag (L) and a placard mocking  President Bashar al-Assad.  AFP PHOTO/SI MITCHELL (Photo credit should read Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators take to the streets of Wadi Khaled, on the Lebanese-Syrian border, during the Crawling Friday protest against the Syrian regime on Dec. 30, 2011, waving Syria’s old national flag and a placard mocking President Bashar al-Assad.

Photo: Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images

As soon as the Arab uprisings broke out in 2011, the Saudi-UAE alliance worked (often alongside Israel) to maintain the established order or return deposed tyrants to power.

By stark contrast, Qatar and Turkey tried to support (financially and through their media) the political ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood. The 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president was the peak of this effort.

When the uprisings began in Syria, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar expected a quick fall of the regime. When, for a variety of reasons, that did not happen, they sped to sponsor and arm fighting groups inside Syria that they could control. The Saudis in particular saw an opportunity to turn Syria into a sectarian conflict for its own ends.

Armed rebel and opposition groups with different names sprouted inside the country. One of the most well-known was the Syrian National Coalition, an exile opposition group (with tenuous links to rebel groups), although others with fancy names also existed. This civilian opposition council in exile — modeled after the one neocons used so effectively before the 2003 invasion of Iraq — was set up in order to project a different image of Syrian rebels to the world.

But this opposition council, pleasing as it was to Western ears, was, in fact, cut off from the rebels actually doing the fighting inside Syria. As a result, they were an effective propaganda force for the West but had little relationship to the realities on the ground in Syria.

Indeed, most of these exiled leaders — divided in loyalty between Qatar and Saudi Arabia — did not dare to step foot in areas of Syria controlled by opposition groups. As the war against the regime increasingly assumed a sectarian cast, fanatical jihadi groups were the logical beneficiaries and they were the most effective — both on the battlefield and in sectarian advocacy.

It is not that civilian protesters suddenly grew beards and switched poles on the ideological spectrum, as some Western media narratives would have it. Rather, the political climate in Syria, long influenced by Islamist currents, was rather hospitable to those sectarian, religious ideologies much more than secular or leftist ideologies. (The Syrian regime had a history of merciless repression against leftist dissidents, and this made the left even weaker in the face of sectarian rebel factions).

Qatar found the Al Qaeda organization in Syria most convenient for its purposes, while Saudi Arabia preferred the Army of Islam along with other armed bands using different names. There was a preference of both Qatar and the Saudi regime to give non-threatening — often civilian — names to rebel groups, but the trick did not last long and, very quickly, the blatantly Islamic and fanatically religious names prevailed. But Qatari and Saudi funding was not an independent affair: Early on, the New York Times pointed out that financial and arms transfers to Syria from the Gulf had the blessing of the Obama administration.

This was because, at the time, it was expected that the Assad regime would quickly fall, and each side hoped to install its own puppet regime. This deadly competition did not go as planned, and the involvement of regional and international players in the Syrian conflict prolonged the war and the suffering of Syrians.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar later got distracted with their own conflict, as well as the Yemen war. But the welfare of the Syrian people was never a priority of either regime — nor was it a priority for any of the outside parties that intervened in Syria.

While other narratives are more digestible, and others still serve the interests of outside regimes, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was a leading factor, and still is, in the destruction of Syria. Nevertheless, the deadly involvement of both regimes had substantial Western support and was in no way isolated from the reckless Western policies in the Middle East at large.

Correction: July 2, 2018
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story contained an inaccurate reference to the timing of the death of Hafez al-Assad.


Top photo: A Syrian man helps evacuate an injured victim following Syrian government air strikes on the Eastern Ghouta rebel-held enclave of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 20, 2018.

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