Qatar and the Syrian crisis

By Laura Rufalco, Trainee, GREMMO

The Syrian Civil war has became a battlefield of a proxy war between regional actors. Even if the conflict respond to its own dynamics and has a core of its own, independent of international actors, there is no doubt that it was magnified by the engagement of neighboring countries interested in the fall or the maintain of the regime.

Four countries are deeply implicated in the conflict: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, by means of a direct or indirect involvement. The strategic positioning of some of these neighboring countries is easier to analyze than others. We have two opposite regional powers fighting for hegemony and trying to destabilize the balance of powers to their own side. Backing the Assad’s Regime, we have the unconditional support of Iran – a support that allowed the Assads to regain power at a time the international community thought their fall was only a matter of time. On the other side, we have Saudi Arabia financing rebel groups, in an incessantly effort to bring down the regime, which would be a huge blow to Saudi Arabia biggest enemy in the region, Iran, and would therefore diminish what they believe to be a ‘Shiite threat’.

But analyzing the strategy of other countries engaged in the conflict becomes a difficult quest when it comes to Turkey and Qatar. Turkey is perhaps the most impacted country after Syria itself, because of the insecurity present on its southern border and also because of the immense number of refugees crossing this border every day.  The Turkish government, which for long has been supporting rebel groups in the hope that Assad would follow the same path as Kaddafi, is now trapped in a crossway where all the sides lead to a dangerous future. Assad is, by now, not losing this war, and the consequences of him staying in power will deeply impact Turkey’s domestic and international policy. However, was Assad to lose the war, the eventual groups that would seize power, and the possible fragmentation of Syria, could also represent a big threat to Turkey. Therefore, analyzing the Turkish strategy towards the Syrian conflict is extremely difficult, especially because by now the AKP itself seems to have no clear strategy on how to address the Syrian crisis.

In this complex environment that is the Middle East, nothing is as simple as it seems to be; the positioning of another country deeply involved in the conflict, Qatar, is a good example of this statement. If we take for granted the idea that the small – but wealthy – country, with a Sunni monarchy, would be intrinsically opposite to the “croissant chiite”, this would explain the Qatari engagement in supporting the Syrian opposition. As Saudi Arabia, Qatar would want to undermine Iran – the biggest Shiite threat in the region, by seeking the fall of the Alawites in Syria. This would put Qatar side by side with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. However, the maze of the Syrian war is more complex than one might imagine. First of all, we need to keep in mind that, even if Iran is not seen as an ally to Qatar, the Persian country does not represent the same risk to the Qatari monarchy as it represents to Saudi Arabia. Qatar is a wealthy country thanks to its oil and gas reserves. Indeed, the biggest gas reserve from Qatar is shared with Iran, which means that both countries must preserve their relations in order to protect their gas exploitation. The interest of Qatar in Syria is not merely to have an indirect way to attack Iran, as it is for Saudi Arabia. Some analysts even affirm that one of the goals of Qatar in financing the fall of Assad would be an ‘investment’ for the future: once Assad is down, Qatar would use Syrian territory to construct a pipeline that would export gas from Qatar to the Mediterranean countries. However, this theory, even if it founds its ground in reality, cannot, by all means, be considered a reason in itself for Qatari engagement in the conflict. The Qatari engagement in the Syrian war, by financially supporting rebel groups of all sorts, as well as providing them with weaponry, mainly respond to a regional strategy: to translate the country’s economic power into political influence in the region.

Since the beginning of the so-called ‘Arab Springs’, Qatar put itself forward as the defender of the Arab people fighting against dictatorship. Aljazeera, the news channel of the Qatari monarchy, was actively covering the demonstrations, meanwhile Qatar openly supported rebels in Libya and demonstrators in Egypt. The rise of Islamists governments supported by Qatar would be the award of their support to demonstrators and rebels – as it was the case in Egypt, when Mohamed Morsi was elected president. With Islamists groups gaining power in the countries touched by the Arab Spring, Qatar would satisfy its ambitions of being a regional leader, since those groups are intimately lined with Qatar’s monarchy. Therefore, this quest for regional influence would partially explain why Qatar almost immediately started supporting rebel groups in Syria, providing them with over 3U$ billions.

Moreover, in order to understanding the Qatari engagement towards Syria, we first have to take a look at the Saudi Arabia – Qatar relations. Both are Sunni petro-monarchies, but regional rivals that defend different sorts of political Islam. Qatar’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood put the country in bad terms with Saudi Arabia. More than Syria, Egypt is the country that best represents the Saudi-Arabia – Qatar rivalry. The military coup d’état backed by Saudi Arabia that brought an end to the government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a great blow to the Qatari foreign policy and its plans. But Qatar did not stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and others Islamists groups, even those considered by Saudi Arabia as ‘too extremists’. Last March, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, as a protest to the country’s support of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists movements. Saudi Arabia has been accusing Qatar of playing for both sides in their support for different – and rivals- groups of the Syrian opposition, which would undermine the opposition efforts to fight Assad. Even if Saudi Arabia and Qatar want the same thing, the fall of Assad, they do not want it for the same reason. Under that perspective, both countries become important rivals, seeking the same goal for different purposes. In the group of supporters of the Syrian opposition, Qatar would be closer to Turkey than to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition continues to be fragmented and to face internal conflicts that weaken their action.

What we witnessed lately, however, is a seemingly retreat of the Qatari government towards a more neutral position. A new strategy of the country would be to claim a political solution for the conflict, leaving the financing of the rebel groups to Saudi Arabia. The Qatari government was even accused of recreating ties with Damascus, which was promptly denied. The idea that Qatar is backing away from supporting the rebels is, however, denied by some analysts. Nonetheless, if the new strategy of the country is yet to be clarified, the certainty that Bachar al-Assad is about to fall is long gone. In that new context, Qatar is reanalyzing its strategy – its political costs and its impact on its foreign policy.

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