Published on
The Independent/UK

John Kerry Wants the Gulf to Support the Syrian Rebels. But Which Rebels? The Soft, Safe Ones? Or Those Horrible, 'Terrorist' Islamists?

John Kerry has had a miserable time of it in the Gulf. He has to love them all – the kings and princes and emirs – and he needs their support against Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Because, of course, they are sending cash and weapons to the rebels. But which rebels? The soft, secular safe guys of the Free Syrian Army or the horrible ‘terrorist’ Islamists who are also fighting Assad and who, give and take a few thousands square yards, have just captured the Syrian provincial capital of Raqa?

In Qatar yesterday, the US Secretary of State vouchsafed to tell the world that he now had “greater guarantees” that arms were being sent to “moderate” groups in Syria. Such guarantees may exist – but they are worthless. If Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending guns to the opposition, how can they possibly label them ‘Not for al-Nusra or other Islamist groups’? And since the Saudi royal family are Wahabis – like many of the Islamist fighters in Syria and, indeed, the 9/11 killers in America – why shouldn’t the Saudis arm their favourite anti-Shiite militia in Syria?

Mr Kerry seemed to have no idea. “Bashar Assad has lost legitimacy,” he announced – wasn’t that supposed to have happened two years ago? – “and there is no way he will restore that.” But if the Saudis and the Qataris are pouring weapons into Syria and the Americans cannot – let us tell the truth here – control who gets them, who will be the ‘legitimate’ rulers of post-Bashar Syria. All in the Gulf are agreed that Bashar is a very nasty piece of work. But do Saudi Arabia and Qatar – famed for their freedoms, parliamentary democracies and human rights – intend to install a western-style democracy in Damascus?


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The Saudis have been raging about Assad’s Scuds. “This cannot go on,” Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Feisal told Kerry of the continuing Syrian government ballistic missile attacks on Aleppo. And so say all of us. But the attacks are going on – and the Saudis and the Qataris and the Americans and, I suppose, the British, can’t do anything about them. When Kerry was asked in Riyadh on Monday whether Saudi weapons supplies to the rebels were a concern, he blandly replied by talking about Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah weapons supplies to the Assad regime.

In a world which has no institutional memory, no one asked why the Hezbollah should be giving weapons to the Assad regime when the Israelis are still boasting that only last month they bombed a weapons convoy going from Assad to the Hezbollah. Confusing, isn’t it?

And then there’s Kerry’s wonderful remark in Riyadh that “the United States will continue to work with our friends to empower the Syrian opposition to hopefully be able to bring about a peaceful revolution.” Forget the split infinitive. Forget the fact that the Americans claim to be sending only money and bandages and the Brits are only planning to send ‘non-lethal' armoured vehicles. Schoolchildren should be asked to parse this nonsense. ‘Friends’? ‘Empower’? ‘Hopefully’? ‘Peaceful’? No wonder Bashar al-Assad sounds so confident.

Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk is Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper.  He is the author of many books on the region, including The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East

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