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Syria Revolution - Opposition External Support

Influential Sunni clerics from several Arab States, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, called on Sunnis to join the jihad against the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and its supporters. Appeals, echoing an earlier call made by Al-Qaida leader Zawahiri, urged that money and weapons be provided to anti-government armed groups.

The Arab League's decision on 25 March 2013 to recognize Syria's anti-government coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people has boosted the opposition's international standing and opened the door to increasing an already substantial arms flow to rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar want to curb Iran's attempts at regional domination and thereby increase their own influence. An overthrow of the Assad government would be a major blow for Iran, and so the two monarchies have been quite openly backing the Syrian opposition. And not just in Syria - they have even been promoting anti-Iranian groups in Lebanon and Iraq. For decades, Saudi Arabia lent its support to radical Salafist groups, but ever since bad experiences with al Qaeda and Saudi volunteer fighters in Afghanistan, the monarchy has become more cautious.

In January 2012 Qatar proposed sending Arab troops to Syria to halt the bloodshed in that country, where violence has raged despite the presence of Arab League observers sent to monitor the situation. In an interview to be broadcast on the US television network CBS Sunday, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said some Arab troops should go to Syria to "stop the killing" that the United Nations said had claimed more than 5,000 lives since the uprising began in March 2011. Qatar was new to the game, and didn't have the experience of sending fighters and light weapons into a country where it could hurt them. For that reason, support from Qatar had been less restrained. Qatar was said to have paid hundreds of millions of US dollars to the Syrian opposition. Moreover, at least a dozen planes loaded with weapons and ammunition are said to have been delivered to the rebels via Turkey.

On 27 May 2013, the EU decided to lift the embargo on Syrian rebels at a meeting in Brussels. EU members also agreed that none of them would send any weapons to the rebels before August 1st, a delay aimed at allowing the U.S.-Russian peace initiative to proceed. Russia responded to the decision by saying that it would undermine peace efforts in the country. On 28 May 2013, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Russia had decided to proceed with delivery of S-300 surface to air missile systems to Syria, suggesting the move would be a "stabilizing factor" aimed at deterring any potential foreign intervention in the country. The Russian position on the delivery continued to be that it was in fulfillment of previous contract obligations and was fully in compliance with international norms. No timetable was given as to when the systems would be actually delivered. Israel and the United States had both been pushing Russia to agree not to deliver the systems at all, and in response to the announcement, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that if the systems were delivered his country would "know what to do," suggesting a possible pre-emptive strike. Israel had already conducted air strikes in and around Syria during the conflict aimed at preventing the movement of materiel to groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The vanishing of Obama's "red line" and his handing the Syria file over to Putin after the mass Sarin gas attacks of 02 August 2013, catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse. In the wake of that attack, moderate rebel forces did not receive the international assistance they had hoped for. That empowered Islamist groups and encouraged them to cooperate with al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, the only party they deemed strong enough to help take down the Assad regime.

In December 2013, the US suspended non-lethal support for rebels in northern Syria after Islamic rebels seized some of their bases. From that point onward, the US has focused its attention on the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group.

On June 27, 2014 the White House asked the US Congress for $500 million to equip and train selected members of the armed moderate Syrian opposition. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Thursday the money will also be used to help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under rebel control and meet the threat of terrorism. Hayden said while there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria, the money would be another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against attacks by the Assad regime. President Obama had told the graduating class of the West Point military academy last month that the US must push back against extremists who he said are finding safe haven in the chaos in Syria.

Obama’s request called for the Pentagon to “train and equip vetted elements of the Syrian armed opposition to held defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement.” Obama’s request also reflects a scramble by the admin to try to put some form to the president’s surprise announcement last month of plans for a $5 billion counterterrorism fund to provide training for ops in vulnerable countries in the Middle East; neither the Pentagon nor State had drawn up plans for spending the money. The initiative was included in the $58.6 billion the Pentagon is seeking in wartime funding for fiscal 2015.

A new law decreed by Saudi King Abdullah in February 2014 criminalized various forms of support to certain groups. In March 2014, a list was released naming these groups, including two jihadist organizations — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, which since began calling itself "the Islamic State") and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. The campaign was attributed in part to charges that Saudi Arabia had been turning a blind eye to its citizens joining the war in Syria. It may also have been linked to Riyadh's uncovering of terrorist plots against the kingdom by Saudis at home colluding with Saudi ISIS members abroad. The campaign continued to deepen as ISIS made significant territorial gains in countries north of Saudi Arabia and threatened the kingdom itself.

Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, stepped down from his post on 15 April 2014. His resignation came at "his own request," according to Saudi state media. The 65 year old prince was replaced by his deputy, General Youssef al Idrissi. Bandar had been spearheading Saudi efforts to unseat Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the bitter and bloody Syrian civil war, supporting various Sunni rebel factions. The Saudi prince had faced criticism for reportedly working with al-Qaida as part of those efforts.

The Saudis had previously announced they would put on trial any Saudi fighting in Syria and Bandar invested in supporting al-Qaida in Syria, he wanted to get rid of the Syrian regime at any cost, even to the point of working with al-Qaida. So, the moment the Saudis decided to ban Saudis from going to Syria it became clear Bandar's approach to Syria has failed and the Saudis were about to alter their policy on Syria.

Prince Bandar was a well-known figure in Washington, where he served as Saudi ambassador for nearly 30 years. But his more recent relations with the United States had been rocky. He reportedly criticized the Obama administration for not supplying Syrian rebels with heavy weaponry and was reported to have threatened on several occasions to affect a “major shift” away from the Saudi kingdom's long alliance with Washington.

By late 2014, the Qataris, disappointed by lack of progress in the fight against Assad, started to consider training members of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebels less militant than the Islamic State group or the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, but more militant than the FSA.

By January 2015 Turkish and US officials appeared to be close to finalizing an agreement on the provision of training and equipment to the so-called moderate Syrian rebels on Turkish soil. Around 1,500 to 2,000 people were expected to be trained in Turkey in the first year. A "limited number" of about 100 US troops would assist in the militants' training at a military base in Kirsehir, central Turkey. The training was set to begin in March 2015 in conjunction with similar programs being planned in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The program's aim was to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over the course of three years.

On 09 June 2016 it was reported that French special forces in northern Syria were assisting Kurdish-led militias in a drive to retake a pocket of territory west of the Euphrates River from the Islamic State terror group. The commandos were not participating in combat in the so-called Manbij pocket and were restricted to advisory and training roles. US officials had also inserted about 300 American special forces in northern Syria and embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces are not involved in combat. “The offensive at Manbij is clearly being backed by a certain number of states including France. It's the usual support - it’s advisory,” a French defense ministry official told AFP. Until now France had only acknowledged a ground deployment of around 150 members of its special forces in Iraq's Kurdish region.

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