Dozens of fighters opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad are receiving American military training in Qatar, near the Saudi Arabian border, according to a new US documentary.
In a video report on the growing US involvement in the Syrian conflict, PBS’ Frontline interviewed a rebel fighter who said he and 80 to 90 colleagues was flown to Doha via Ankara, Turkey, and then driven some two hours out of the city to a desert military base guarded by Qatari soldiers.
There, he said he was trained in ambushing vehicles, raiding its contents to retrieve weapons and information as well as how to “finish off” soldiers who survived the initial attack.
If true, the training program represents a new dimension of support for the rebels from Qatar, which is home to the largest US military base in the region and has already played a major role in the three-year-old Syrian conflict.
Along with several other countries, Qatar has proven to be a determined supporter of elements of Syria’s political and military opposition and has had a notable impact on the dynamics of the conflict, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told Doha News via email.
According to the Financial Times, Qatar has contributed between $1 billion and $3 billion to the rebels in what many observers argue is an attempt to gain influence in the region. For their part, Qatari officials have said they are intervening to protect the Syrian people from Al Assad’s forces.
The Gulf state has made no secret of its desire to see rebel forces supplied with weapons from outside the country. Last June, the country’s former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, said that “arms may be the only way to achieve peace.”
By that time, the country had already sent at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles into Syria, according to the New York Times. This followed previous transfers of light arms purchased in Libya and Eastern European states, FT’s report stated.
The movement of the more advanced weaponry concerns Western officials who fear the armaments could end up in the hands of Islamic groups that are part of the fragmented opposition fighting Al Assad.
When it comes to the fighters reported to be receiving US support and training in Qatar, the rebels interviewed by Frontline said American officials screened them to determine if they were connected to extremist organizations.
However, a recent report on Syria’s military landscape by the Brookings Doha Center highlighted the differing objectives of the US and Qatar. It states:
“The United States is widely perceived to have adopted a policy of supporting moderate rebel forces only to the extent necessary to induce negotiations capable of resulting in political compromise and a cessation of violence between government and opposition.
Meanwhile, the more determined providers of practical military assistance to the Syrian armed opposition have been regional states, most prominently Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey … (who) all remain determined to precipitate an outright military defeat of the Assad regime…
While Saudi Arabia appears to be focusing on reinvigorating moderate armed groups – in broad alignment with U.S. policy interests – Qatar, and to a lesser extent Turkey, remain more supportive of actors in the mainstream Islamist camp.”
Lister added that despite the perceived differences in the past, there have been increasing signs in recent months that the policies of Qatar and the US are converging on a dual-track strategy of bolstering moderate forces while countering jihadists.
“That stories have begun to emerge describing the training of moderate rebels on Qatari territory by US personnel underlines that the fundamental policy interests of both Qatar and the US are much the same,” he said.
Turning the tide?
One of the fighters who attended the American training camp in Qatar echoed the perception that the US support was not intended to lead the rebels to a military victory.
He told Frontline that he found the goal stated by American officials to train 30,000 to 40,000 fighters was implausible, given that only about 85 rebels were attending the course at any given time.
Furthermore, he said he and his colleagues became increasingly frustrated when they realized that the instructions his group received would be no match for the tactics of the Al Assad’s fighters, who are using aircraft to attack civilian and opposition groups.
“When I saw there was no training in anti-aircraft weapons, my morale was destroyed … The impression I got from their support is that they don’t actually want us to defeat the regime, but they don’t want the regime to defeat us either.”