“Qatar’s wealth, underpinned by the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, is a potent weapon in its quest for political influence in a Middle East undergoing transition,” analysts suggest:
Nowhere is this influence more clear than in Libya and Syria. In 2011, Qatar helped to boost the rebels who toppled Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. Today, Qatar is a leading backer of the forces trying to topple the Assad regime in Syria. As an FT investigation has shown, its effort on armament in Syria is now beginning to be overtaken by Saudi Arabia. Still, the emirate has spent $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebels, far exceeding the contribution made by any other government.
As tentative steps begin towards talks to end the conflict in Syria, “Qatar has emerged as a driving force: pouring in tens of millions of dollars to arm Syria’s rebels,” say two prominent analysts.
“Yet it also stands accused of dividing them – and of positioning itself for even greater influence in the post-Assad era,” according to the Financial Times investigation by Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith:
When it comes to backing Syria’s rebels, no one can claim more credit than the gas-rich Gulf state. Whether in terms of armaments or financial support for dissidents, diplomatic manoeuvring or lobbying, Qatar has been in the lead, readily disgorging its gas-generated wealth in the pursuit of the downfall of the House of Assad.
Yet, as the Arab world’s bloodiest uprising grinds on into its third year, Qatar finds itself pulled into a complicated and fractured conflict, the outcome of which has a decreasing ability to influence, while simultaneously becoming a high-profile scapegoat for participants on both sides. Among the Syrian regime’s numerous but fragmented opponents the small Gulf state evokes a surprisingly ambivalent – and often overtly hostile – response.
Qatar’s high degree of exposure partly “reflects the reluctance of western governments to intervene in Syria,” say Khalaf, the FT’s Middle East editor, and Fielding-Smith, the paper’s Lebanon and Syria correspondent.
“However, for Qatar, Syria is also the culmination of an opportunistic foreign policy which saw Doha become the unlikely backer of other Arab revolts in north Africa – and a friend of those who emerge as winners, in most cases Islamists,” they note:
Qatar’s ruling family, the al-Thanis, have no ideological or religious affinity with the Islamists – they are simply not choosy about the beliefs held by useful friends. Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party, which won the first elections after the popular revolts. Some politicians in the region believe the emir is trying to position himself as the “Islamist [Gamal] Abdel Nasser”, as one Arab politician put it, referring to the late Egyptian president and the Arab world’s only true pan-Arab leader.
Most of Doha’s neighbours in the Gulf are hostile to the Islamist trend in the region, but this is of little consequence to a state that takes pleasure in being contrarian. Nor are the al-Thanis embarrassed by the contradictions of an autocracy cheerleading for revolution. “The Qataris say if there’s a tsunami coming your way you ride it, not let it hit you,” says a western diplomat describing Qatar’s attitude towards Islamists.
“Qatar’s involvement in Libya also builds on its long relationship with (and subsequent perceived loyalty by) some Libyan Islamists,” notes Lina Khatib, the head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Since the 1990s, Qatar had hosted a number of Libyan Islamists, mainly from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
In an interview with al-Jazeera on September 7, 2011, the Emir of Qatar said “he believed radical Islamists whose views were forged under tyrannical governments could embrace participatory politics if the promise of real democracy and justice of this year’s Arab revolts is fulfilled. If so, the Qatari ruler said, ‘I believe you will see this extremism transform into civilian life and civil society’”.
“As the Qataris have attempted to unite the political opposition by championing the formation of the Syrian National Coalition (the main front) they have been accused of dividing it – just as their efforts to shape a fragmented rebel army into a more coherent form by helping to unify the brigades under one command have contributed to its incoherence,” say the FT investigators:
In the years before the Arab uprisings, Qatar had cultivated its role as a mediator, capable of talking to all sides on the divisions that polarised the Middle East. It hosted the US’s biggest military air base in the region, while maintaining cordial relations with Iran; it held contacts with Israel while simultaneously backing the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. On Syria, Qatar soon emerged as one of the few angry voices at Arab summits, pushing for a tougher line.
“In Syria, Qatar became an active protagonist,” says a western diplomat. Having worked to become a kind of Norway of the Gulf, he adds, it also wanted to be “the Gulf version of the UK and France, and you can’t be both at the same time”.
Qatar has come under criticism for funding illiberal actors, including ultraconservative Salafist militants, during the Arab uprisings while suppressing fundamental freedoms at home.
“Groups get funding from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia and they deceive sponsors sometimes,” comments Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the US Institute for the Study of War, which has published extensive studies of Syria’s fragmented opposition:
…..as the conflict progressed, the Qataris worked through members of the exiled Muslim Brotherhood to identify rebel factions that should be supported. For example, she says, that is how they linked up with the Farouq brigades, one of the largest and more mainstream factions. ……A rebel leader in the northern Aleppo province, who works with Liwaa al-Tawhid, says he has also received a Saudi intermediary who goes around rebel-held areas distributing funds.
“Indeed, if Qatar is, as its detractors say, seeking to build up a proxy force in Syria to implement its regional agenda, it is doing so in an environment which is not conducive to either loyalty or cohesion,” note khalaf and Fielding-Smith:
With so many different outside sources of sponsorship and no stable organisational structures, rebel groups lurch from alliance to alliance and continually rebrand themselves in the search for support.
Ironically, although the relationship between Riyadh and Doha has long been characterised by mutual suspicion, in many ways they have worked very closely on Syria. However, a crucial division over the Muslim Brotherhood has undoubtedly led to the pursuit of divergent agendas on the Syrian battlefield, with harmful consequences for an opposition in desperate need of unity. For the Saudis, the handful of secular rebel factions, plus the Salafi groups that espouse a stricter Wahabi Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, are vastly preferable to the Brotherhood, a more organised political group and therefore a greater political threat.
“The Saudis say ‘No to the Brotherhood,’” says Riad al-Shaqfa, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Qataris, on the other hand, are “playing a positive role.”
Observers also give credence to allegations that Qatar has – directly or indirectly – provided assistance to the Al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusrah, although other suggest that may be due to leakage of arms and other charitable contributions from the Gulf.
“Because the Free Syrian Army [FSA] groups work so closely with non-FSA groups these weapons are spreading just because they are fighting side by side – and maybe the groups trade arms with each other as well,” says Eliot Higgins, who analyzes weapons used in the conflict on his Brown Moses blog.
Most Syrians have never heard of Mustafa Sabbagh, “though he is considered the most powerful man in the political opposition,” say the FT investigators:
He doesn’t make many speeches, or issue statements, but he does oversee the coalition’s budget, to which the Qataris are the biggest donors, and is responsible, as one western official says, “for writing the cheques”. While seen by both friends and detractors as a shrewd man who appealed to Qatar officials’ business-minded attitude, Sabbagh has come under criticism for supposedly using his position to control the opposition and further Qatari influence.
Tensions between Sabbagh and secular members of the new National Coalition, announced in Doha in November 2012, emerged after the disputed election of an interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, in March.
Claims of Qatari dominance of the opposition persisted….True, the Muslim Brotherhood was no longer the main component, but a new bloc of more than a dozen members, brought in by Sabbagh as representatives of local communities in Syria, sparked new disagreements,” the FT investigators reveal:
It was seen as another bloc that was loyal to Qatar…..Each of these members was supposed to represent a local council in Syria’s different provinces, and together the councils received $8m from Qatar soon after the formation of the coalition. Qatar was also the first – and possibly the only – country to provide funding for the coalition budget, to the tune of $20m, and it delivered the first $10m out of a pledged $100m package for the organisation’s new humanitarian assistance unit.
For all its investment in the conflict, “whether Qatar’s venture into Syrian opposition politics will have any returns will depend on whether Syria survives as a country – something that is by no means assured,” Khalaf and Fielding-Smith conclude:
Perhaps for the Qatari emir, the demise of Assad will be sufficient satisfaction. In theory, Qatar could also emerge with multiple points of influence through Islamists and loyal brigades. But it has already created many enemies inside Syria, and not just among pro-regime supporters. So torn apart is the fabric of Syria’s society, and so radicalised and suspicious its battered population, that the Qataris are more likely to find that they are neither thanked – nor even wanted – there.
“The divisions between the Qataris and Saudis have partly come about because of the reluctance of the US to engage in the conflict,” the FT suggests:
Washington has recently tried to streamline the flow of arms by Gulf states to the rebels, creating “operation rooms” in Turkey and Jordan to co-ordinate deliveries. But the US effort should have come earlier. In the meantime, the rebels’ fight against Assad will remain confused until the US, Britain and France supply some arms of their own to moderates fighting in Syria.