The identity of some of the foreign generals who attended a secret conference convened last month by Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards may seem, at first, surprising.
The meeting was aimed at co-ordinating aid to the Syrian rebel groups and included military chiefs from the US and France, in addition to representatives of Syria’s neighbours, Turkey and Jordan. But around the table were also senior officers from Qatar and UAE. Both countries are on the Persian Gulf, over 1,000 miles from Syria.
The presence of the Gulf generals at the conference was far from coincidental: the meeting took place as the ground war in Syria, ongoing now for 22 months, took a decisive change of direction. Rebel forces are capturing major Syrian army bases daily and taking up strategic positions around Damascus and Aleppo. The tables seem to turning. This is largely due to an influx of arms financed by the Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Crucially, those weapons include anti-aircraft missiles.
These missiles are just the tip of the iceberg of what some are now calling “the Sunni axis”, reaching from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. The main Sunni players have identified Syria as a central battleground against the Shia axis reaching from Iran through the current government of Iraq, Syria and the most powerful force in Lebanon, Hizbollah. In Syria, the Sunnis are not just standing up for the rebels — Sunnis themselves — but seeking to take out a major link in the Shia axis.
Less active in Syria, but a central Sunni power all the same, Egypt has been deeply involved with another major Sunni battleground: Gaza. Egypt was the main broker in the ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas last month.
Meanwhile, the Emir of Qatar made a historic visit to Gaza two months ago, promising huge investments. And two years ago, it was the Turkish movement IHH, which has links to the Erdogan government, that sent the Marmara flotilla.
For Turkey and Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood ideals unite them with Hamas and much of the Syrian opposition. The Gulf states, meanwhile, are driven by a fear of Iran and an ambition to convert their oil wealth into international influence.