Qatar returns to the limelight amid the Syrian crisis

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

In June 2013, when Qatar’s emir, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, retired and handed power to his son Shaikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, many observers questioned whether Doha’s foreign policy would undergo any change. After all, Qatar’s policy on Egypt and Syria had diminished considerably because of what was seen as “policy overstretch” by Doha. Libya turned out to be a failure, resulting in lasting hatred by some Libyans for Doha’s interference. Observers of Qatari politics noted that the country seemed to be “in a freeze” since June 2013.

Nevertheless, Qatar is now re-emerging as assertive, if not outright aggressive, regarding ongoing events in the Levant. Doha is playing powerbroker again in Syria by pushing, and succeeding, for the release of kidnap victims and negotiating with Turkey about the future leadership in the corridors of power in Damascus. All this activity begs the following questions: What is Qatar up to? Can this activity solve any problems or do these initiatives complicate matters in the region and specifically in the Gulf Cooperation Council states?

To many, Qatar is re-establishing itself in political matters throughout the Middle East North Africa region, specifically in the Arab core - the Levant. Following the Oct. 21, 2013 meeting of Arab foreign ministers with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah spoke about the role Qatar played in releasing the kidnapped Lebanese hostages in Azaz. The crisis began 17 months ago, when the Syrian rebels detained the Lebanese men, accusing them of being Hezbollah operatives who were backing the Syrian government.

Later, a Lebanese group kidnapped Turkish pilots to pressure the rebels to release what the group said were religious pilgrims. To end the crisis, Lebanese officials say Qatar’s al-Attiyah negotiated directly with Syrian officials in the first known contact between the two sides since Qatar split with the regime in Damascus at the start of Syria’s conflict almost 20 months ago. What made this incident noteworthy is Qatar’s capability to talk directly to the abductors who appear to be part of the rebel factions in Azaz. Significantly, there appears to be some communication between Qatar and the Syrian government. So much so that Arab sources report that Doha is attempting to open up, much to the chagrin of GCC allies, diplomatic relations with the Assad regime.

Doha’s interests

Qatar’s reawakened policy is also driven by Doha’s interests to maintain healthy ties with Iran. Again, from the same interview noted above, Attiyah said: “Iran is a neighboring country with which we have relations on all levels. We have different opinions, however, on the Syrian issue. We talked with Iranians and told them that we do not politically agree with them over the Syrian issue. Why do we have to do as others wish?” Attiyah’s statement is indicative of a wider move by the Qataris to move more aggressively outside of the GCC, harking back to the days before the Arab Spring. Arab interlocutors state that Emir Tamim is inviting Iranian President Hassan Rowhani to Doha as soon as possible.

Qatar is clearly reasserting itself as a broker on the regional stage with implications for Doha’s ability to act as a mediator between Iran and Western powers.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The late October 2013 interview with Qatari Foreign Minister Attiyah also focused on the collapse of the opposition leading up to what is likely to be a failed Geneva II meeting with members of the Syrian spectrum. His statement focused on the international community’s action, or lack thereof, on Syria:

“Why do we always hold the opposition accountable for the mistakes of the international community? The opposition was functioning under the umbrella of a national council, and the international community complained about the council not including all parts of Syrian society. It was then transformed into a coalition. They then said that the coalition needed to be expanded and diversified, and the opposition did so. They then said that the coalition has nothing to do with rebels, and subsequently the military council was formed. Why do we hold the Syrian opposition accountable for the failure of the international community and the U.N. Security Council? We want an answer.”

These types of comments by the Qatari foreign minister signal discontent with outside powers, notably the United Nation’s P5 powers. At the same time, such comments also illustrate Doha’s desire for answers that may be not in congruence with other regional neighbors - specifically some states of the GCC.

Butting heads

Significantly, Qatar is again butting heads with Saudi Arabia in Syria. Qatar’s reemergence in the Syrian theater is giving the al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) a boost. ISIL is going on the offensive against certain Syrian rebel groups that frequently benefit from Qatar’s generosity, including Ahfad al-Rasoul and the Farouq Brigades. However, another recipient of Qatar’s support – possibly the strongest militia around Syria’s largest city, Aleppo – appears to prefer to negotiate with ISIL instead of helping other rebels fight it. In addition, Qatar is so keen to obtain clients in the Levant that Doha has shown little concern for groups and their violent Islamist credentials but clearly supports Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) principles.

To be sure, Doha’s activity appears to be in response to Saudi anger at the United States and others for failing to follow through on aid commitments to the appropriate rebel parties in Syria. This fact will heighten tensions between the two GCC states at a very critical time. The merger of dozens of rebel organizations into an “Army of Islam” is indicative of Riyadh’s response to Doha’s actions. This action shows that the union occurred under the auspices of Riyadh’s benefactor Zahran Alloush, a Salafist whose father is a notable cleric in Saudi Arabia.

The final point that must be made is the role Qatar is playing with Turkey. Turkey, of course, is supportive of the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, but wants military action to take out the Syrian government and specifically to remove President Assad from power. Doha wants to link up with Turkey regarding their support for the Ikhwan which automatically puts Qatar in opposition to many other states in the region including Saudi Arabia and, of course, Egypt. Already, it is easy to see that new blocs are forming around regional powers such as Riyadh and Cairo versus Doha and Ankara.

Rare cooperation

Overall, Qatar helped resolve a hostage crisis in Syria’s civil war in a rare instance of cooperation between Damascus and its foes, providing a boost to the Gulf Arab nation’s efforts to restore its role as regional mediator. As noted above, Qatar’s diplomatic intervention prompted Syrian rebels to release nine Lebanese hostages in exchange for the liberty of two Turkish Airlines pilots and about 100 female prisoners.

Nevertheless, Qatar is clearly reasserting itself as a broker on the regional stage with implications for Doha’s ability to act as a mediator between Iran and Western powers. This activity flies directly in the face of Saudi interests, as well the interests of some other GCC states.

The coming weeks will see whether Doha’s activities will receive explicit and implicit complaints from GCC allies who see Qatar returning to its “old tricks.” We may also see Qatar push for acts of reconciliation from some GCC states that are approaching the “Syrian question” from a position of neutrality in order to reach “accommodation” given Emir Tamim’s recent travels. Thus we need to ask ourselves: Are Qatar’s actions in the Syrian battle space capable of creating cleavages in the GCC that benefit Doha, Tehran, and even Damascus? The answer may be surprising.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angeles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.