* Trump may end support for rebel aid programme
* Gulf Arabs fear growth of Iranian influence
* Saudi king says Arabs feel pain at Aleppo plight
* Assad accuses Gulf Arabs of backing "terrorists"
By Sami Aboudi
DUBAI, Dec 9 Gulf Arab states that have funded
and armed the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad are not yet ready to give up on aiding the insurgency,
even as the rebels seem headed for defeat.
The past two weeks have seen rebels driven from most of the
territory they held in Aleppo, once Syria's largest city, the
eastern half of which had been in their hands since 2012. Defeat
there would cost them their last major urban bastion.
The insurgents have also lost important territory in the
suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in recent months, with Assad
now appearing closer to victory than at any point since protests
against him evolved into an armed uprising five years ago.
That has plunged the Sunni Muslim Arab rulers into doubt and
introspection, after years of calling for Assad's overthrow and
backing the rebels against him in a war that has killed hundreds
of thousands of people.
For much of the conflict, countries like Saudi Arabia and
Qatar have been providing arms and funds to insurgents vetted as
"moderate" by Western intelligence agencies, through a
coordination centre in Turkey.
They have also offered diplomatic support to opposition
groups that consider themselves an alternative government in
waiting, and encouraged them to refuse any final settlement that
fails to remove Assad from power.
But while the rebels no longer appear to have any path to
victory, analysts in the region say the wealthy Gulf monarchies
are not ready to give up on them. They could continue to fund
and arm a guerrilla insurgency based in rural areas, even if the
rebels no longer administer major cities and towns.
"I believe the Gulf states will continue to support the
opposition. They will not stop now," said writer and researcher
The Gulf states consider Assad's sponsor Iran to be their
arch enemy, are also fighting a war in Yemen against a Shi'ite
movement they say is backed by Tehran, and have an interest in
perpetuating the Syrian war even if victory is beyond reach.
According to Dakheel, the Gulf rulers are hoping for a boost
from Washington with the looming change in U.S. presidential
administration. They believe outgoing President Barack Obama was
too reluctant to commit military force to confronting Assad and
too soft on Iran more generally, and hope for a tougher line
from Donald Trump.
So far, Trump has given mixed signals about his plans for
the Middle East, promising on the one hand to take a harder line
against Iran, but on the other hand suggesting he favours
Russia's support for Iran's ally Assad.
Gulf states "will look at the position of the new
administration. That position is still vague and presented a
confused picture. How can you take a hardline stance and do not
mind Assad staying (in power)?" Dakheel said.
WAITING ON TRUMP
Saud Humaid Assubayii, security affairs committee chairman
at Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, an appointed advisory body,
told Reuters he too expected Gulf Arab officials would wait to
see what stance Trump will take on Syria.
Gulf states believe that a stronger line from Obama would
have produced a different outcome, he said. Obama threatened to
take military action against Assad's government to punish it for
using chemical weapons in 2013, but then cancelled the strikes
at the last minute after a Russian-brokered deal under which
Assad agreed to give up his poison gas arsenal.
"The U.S. has its own weight.... America is an important
factor," Assubayii said, speaking in a personal capacity. "Of
course, if Obama had stood up to his promises, things would have
been changed and worked out differently."
A Gulf diplomat based in Qatar, who spoke on condition he
not be identified, said the Arab states were setting their
policy first and foremost in response to Tehran.
"Iran's behaviour is dictating Gulf actions and plans. If
Iran is more cooperative that will ease worries and slow
military escalation in the Gulf," he said. "But if Iran
continues to intervene then Arab countries will speed up
military efforts to block Iran."
The likelihood of defeat means Arab governments will be
casting around for blame. Some analysts say division among the
Arab states has helped reduce the effectiveness of the rebel
Saudi Arabia and Qatar at times supported rival rebel
groups. Egypt, the most populous Arab country, has even appeared
to switch sides in recent months, providing public support for
Assad, to the outrage of Riyadh which has provided billions of
dollars in aid to Cairo.
"There wasn't a unified international position. Each country
had its own interests and they supported different groups," said
Ebtesam Al Ketbi, head of the Emirates Policy Centre think tank.
"The lack of a unified vision weakened the Gulf role. This,
of course in addition to the procrastination of the Obama
administration," she added.
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall, Tom Finn, Maha El
Dahan and Tulay Karadeniz, Editing by William Maclean and Peter