Regional rivalries driving Syria's opposition divides

Divisions in the ranks of Syria's opposition are being driven by rivalries between two powerful regional axes -- one led by Turkey and Qatar and the other by Saudi Arabia backed by Washington, experts say.


Competition over money and weapons is adding to the growing tension between the two camps, they say.


Syrian opposition chief Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, speaking at an Arab League summit in Doha on Tuesday, lashed out at regional attempts to steer the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.


"Our people are paying for their freedom with blood," said Khatib, head of the opposition Syria National Coalition.


"The people of Syria will decide [their future], not any other state in this world," he added, as the opposition for the first time took up Syria's vacant seat in the Arab League.


His comments came on the same as some 70 prominent Syrian dissidents criticized the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Coalition and accused regional governments of "hegemony" over the body.


Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which back rebels on the ground in Syria fighting Assad's forces, have been accused of interfering in the Coalition's decisions.


Without explicitly mentioning the Brotherhood, the dissidents criticized "the conflicts between Coalition leaders, the dictatorial control exercised by one of its currents over its decisions and actions, and the flagrant hegemony of diverse Arab and regional players."


Ziad Majed, Paris-based professor of political science, ascribed the tension to "two pro-revolt axes... which play an essential role in providing arms and other support".


"The Qatari-Turkish axis backs the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudi axis is in harmony with the United States. This has an impact on the political opposition and on the armed groups' loyalties," Majed said.


At a meeting of the Coalition in Istanbul meeting last week, arguments raged between opposition forces who believe it is necessary to set up an interim government in anticipation of Assad's fall, and those who back the idea of creating an executive body with limited powers.


When Ghassan Hitto was chosen as Syria's first rebel premier, several dissidents slammed him as "Qatar's candidate", and a dozen Coalition members suspended their membership in the group.


"Differences over Hitto were not necessarily personal or over the fact that he is unknown both in Syria and abroad," said Majed.


"The US-Saudi axis believed it would be better to take the creation of a government slowly, while the Qatari-Turkish axis pushed for a speedy process and for Hitto's election."


The role played by oil-rich countries and Syria's neighbor Turkey, which dreams of becoming a regional superpower, also impacts military developments on the ground.


"After the Istanbul meeting, the Saudis told opposition members that they were unhappy with Hitto's election, pushing the [mainstream rebel] Free Syrian Army to express its disapproval of the rebel premier," a top dissident told AFP.


Rebels fighting Assad's troops in Daraya near Damascus told AFP that at the start of this year they were about to lose control of their town as the army pressed a blistering offensive.


-- "Arms pouring in' --


"Just then, Khatib proposed engaging in talks with regime officials [to negotiate an end to the conflict], and arms started pouring in," a rebel said.


"That means weapons are ready at the border. As Qatar and Turkey disapproved of Khatib's initiative, they allowed weapons to pour in, provoking an escalation on the ground and delegitimizing Khatib's initiative," he added.


An Arab expert on Syria said weapons shipped by Qatar are mostly being transported via Turkey into the hands of armed groups with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.


The Saudis are meanwhile arming defectors who have set up military councils, "for fear of the growing influence of radical Islamists", the expert said.


The United States backs the Saudi line. Saudi weapons are mostly being shipped into Syria via the Jordanian border.


Extremist fighters such as Al-Nusra Front are meanwhile being backed by individuals and organizations based in other Gulf countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the expert said, requesting anonymity.


The media has also played a significant role in the undeclared regional war, mainly through satellite channels Al-Jazeera, which is based in Qatar, and Al-Arabiya, which is Saudi-funded.


Opponents to Hitto's election now have an open platform in Al-Arabiya, while Al-Jazeera celebrated the "hospitality" with which the rebel premier was welcomed in Aleppo by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Liwa al-Tawhid.


"This conflict shows no signs of dying out after Assad's fall. Who will rule Syria? Will it be the Muslim Brotherhood, as in Egypt and Tunisia? Will it be someone else? Who will influence Syria's foreign policy? Who will win the biggest reconstruction contracts?" asked Majed.


And more than two years into a war that has already killed at least 70,000 people, it appears Syria's civilians will continue to pay the heftiest price.

Our people are paying for their freedom with blood.