Sunday, June 30, 2013

Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels

    Sunday, June 30, 2013   No comments

WASHINGTON — As an intermittent supply of arms to the Syrian opposition gathered momentum last year, the Obama administration repeatedly implored its Arab allies to keep one type of powerful weapon out of the rebels’ hands: heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles.

The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft.



But one country ignored this admonition: Qatar, the tiny, oil- and gas-rich emirate that has made itself the indispensable nation to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Since the beginning of the year, according to four American and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has used a shadowy arms network to move at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles, one of them a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s, to Syrian rebels who have used them against Mr. Assad’s air force. Deployment of the missiles comes at a time when American officials expect that President Obama’s decision to begin a limited effort to arm the Syrian rebels might be interpreted by Qatar, along with other Arab countries supporting the rebels, as a green light to drastically expand arms shipments.

Qatar’s aggressive effort to bolster the embattled Syrian opposition is the latest brash move by a country that has been using its wealth to elbow its way to the forefront of Middle Eastern statecraft, confounding both its allies in the region and in the West. The strategy is expected to continue even though Qatar’s longtime leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stepped down last week, allowing his 33-year-old son to succeed him.

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