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Qatar faces backlash among rebel groups in Syria

Wednesday - 4/24/2013, 1:04pm  ET

FILE -- In this March 2, 2012 file photo, Citizen journalism image provided by Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, anti-Syrian regime protesters hold up a banner in Arabic reading: "thank you Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait," during a demonstration, in Idlib province, northern Syria. Qatari support for Islamist-learning rebels is causing tensions within the ranks of the highly fragmented Syrian opposition movement. The hyper-wealthy Gulf emirate wields enormous influence over the Syrian opposition's political structure but increasingly faces a backlash among rebel fighters who are wary about potential bargains that could end up giving Qatar outsized influence over the country in a post-Assad transition. (AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria, File)

ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- In a war-battered suburb of Damascus, a commander for one of the smaller nationalist brigades fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad grumbles about the lack of ammunition for his men. He blames Qatar, saying the oil-rich Gulf state directs its backing to rebels with a more Islamist ideology.

Tiny, U.S.-allied Qatar has emerged as one of the strongest international backers of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Many in the Syrian opposition laud Qatar, saying it has stepped in while the international community has failed to intervene or send military aid that would help tip the balance in favor of the rebels, three years into the uprising-turned civil war that has ravaged the country and killed more than 70,000 people.

But its role has also caused tensions within the ranks of the highly fragmented rebellion and political opposition. Some rebel brigades complain they are left out in the cold from the flow of money and weapons, sparking rivalries between secular and Islamist groups. Fighters and opposition activists worry that Qatar is buying outsized influence in post-Assad Syria and giving a boost to Islamist-minded groups if the regime falls.

"Qatar is working to establish an Islamic state in Syria," Abu Ziad, the commander of a brigade in the Damascus suburb, said sullenly, his Kalashnikov rifle resting on a wooden chair next to his tea glass.

"With their money, the Qataris and a bunch of other countries are exploiting the Syrian revolution, each for their own gains," said Abu Ziad, speaking on condition he be identified by his nom de guerre for fear of reprisals from the Syrian regime.

Qatar is not the only country in the region feeding support to the rebellion, and the various lines of backing have prompted worries that numerous countries are trying to win influence, often with conflicting agendas. No country has revealed the extent of its aid to the rebellion. But Qatar appears to be the most prominent.

Officials, diplomats and Western military experts told The Associated press last month that Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar were involved in a carefully prepared covert operation of arming the rebels. The U.S. has a consulting role aimed at ensuring the weapons go to secular and moderate rebel groups.

President Barack Obama met Tuesday at the White House with Qatar's ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and said their two countries will continue to work on more support for the Syrian opposition in the coming months. Washington says it is providing non-lethal aid to the opposition.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Qatar's influential role at a joint press conference with the country's prime minister in Doha last month. He said he had received "greater guarantees" from Qatari leaders that nearly all the arms were getting into the hands of moderates among the Syrian rebels.

Qatari officials have denied their country aims to determine the shape of a post-Assad government in Syria. Qatar's prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, sought to downplay his country's image as the chief Arab patron for the opposition and dispel worries that it seeks to dominate the scene.

"We are not looking for a role just for us," he told reporters at the time. "We are looking for a pan-Arab role."

Syrian opposition figures regularly complain that the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is dominated by fundamentalists from the Muslim Brotherhood backed by Qatar.

Last month, the coalition elected American-educated Ghassan Hitto as its prime minister but almost immediately witnessed a walkout by about a dozen of its members, who accused Qatar and the Brotherhood of using pressure to install its candidate for prime minister.

"The new (interim) government will be composed by the government of Qatar and we will not be part of it," said well-known opposition figure Kamal al-Labwani, who suspended his membership from the coalition.

Several rebel officials and opposition activists said Islamist rebel brigades backed by Qatar are getting the bulk of the weapons. They spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the clandestine flow of support.

The majority of rebel factions in Syria have religious leanings to some degree, and many of them call for some sort of rule by Islamic law in a post-Assad era. The Qatari support does not appear to be going to the most hard-line militant or ultraconservative fighters, such as al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, but rather toward organizations with a conservative religious ideology, away from brigades with a secular or nationalist bent.

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