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, US 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 indispensable to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s government since 2011.
According to four US and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has since the beginning of the year 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 Assad’s air force.
Deployment of the missiles comes at a time when US 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.
“They punch immensely above their weight,” one senior Western diplomat said of the Qataris. “They keep everyone off balance by not being in anyone’s pocket.”
Obama in April warned Hamad about the dangers of arming Islamic radicals in Syria, although most US officials have been wary of applying too much pressure on the Qatari government. “Syria is their backyard, and they have their own interests they are pursing,” said one administration official.
Qatari officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The United States has little leverage over Qatar on the Syria issue, because it needs the Qataris’ help on other fronts. Qatar is poised to host peace talks between US and Afghan officials and the Taliban. The US forward base in Qatar gives the US military a command post in the heart of a strategically vital but volatile region.
Qatar’s ability to be an active player in a global gray market for arms was enhanced by the C-17 military transport planes it bought from Boeing in 2008.
In Obama’s meeting with Hamad at the White House on April 23, he warned the Qatari leader that the weapons were making their way to radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group that the United States has designated as a terrorist group.