The Qatar-Syria stand off: Enemies to the end
The Cradle, May 5, 2023 —
For various reasons related to political leverage, regional grandstanding, and outright animosity, Qatar is likely to remain the last Arab state to return to Syria.
While most Arab countries have already moved to reestablish relations with the Syrian government – in line with a regional and international recognition of the failure to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad after a dozen years – some Arab states, led by Qatar, are out of sync, opposing rapprochement with Damascus.
Doha’s ongoing refusal to normalize ties with Damascus raises many questions, especially as it contradicts the trend of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, under Saudi leadership, to restore relations with Syria to their pre-war levels.
It also contradicts the attempts of Qatar’s only regional strategic ally, Turkiye, to resolve its differences with Damascus, abandon its decade-long enmity with Syria, in a Russian-mediated effort to solve a wide range of problems between the two neighbors. The most prominent of these issues is the removal of Turkish troops from northern Syrian territories, the crisis of Syrian refugees and displaced civilians on both sides of the border, and the growing capabilities of US-backed, secessionist Kurds leading a “self-administration” project inside large swathes of eastern and northern Syria, which Turkiye sees as a threat to its soft underbelly.
Today, Qatar appears to be virtually the only Arab regional state actively toeing the rejectionist position of the US and EU in refusing to open up to the government in Damascus.
The Qatari betrayal of Syria
With the ascension of President Assad to power in 2000, Syrian-Qatari relations witnessed a significant improvement, reaching a climax with Israel’s July 2006 war on Lebanon and then its 2008 war on the Gaza Strip.
Qatar’s public posture appeared firmly supportive of both the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, and Doha became a major funder of the post-war reconstruction of areas destroyed by Israeli attacks. This coincided with the improvement of relations between Qatar and Hamas, the Palestinian resistance’s most prominent faction.
Between 2000 and 2011, relations between Doha and Damascus strengthened outside of the conventional political arena. Assad and former Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani struck up a personal relationship, and the latter paid numerous visits to Damascus.
With the 2011 outbreak of unrest in Syria, signs of a clear and unexpected Qatari shift began via Al-Jazeera – Doha’s most prominent media outlet – and its biased, often inciteful coverage of events in Syria. Sequentially, the political stances of Qatar, Hamas, and Turkiye began to change, with Doha and Ankara pressing for Damascus to alter its position on the banned Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – designated a terrorist organization – and to include it in governance.
When Damascus completely rejected the Qatari and Turkish demands, the unrest in Syria turned from civil disobedience to armed assault, which began to expand rapidly throughout the country. Turkiye opened its borders to foreign fighters from all over the world, with Arab states of the Persian Gulf funding – initially led by Qatar – amounting to billions of dollars, according to the Financial Times.
As the war on Syria expanded, a US-led alliance was formed to train Syrian fighters, and two command centers were established, “MOC” (Military Operations Command) in Jordan, and “MOM” (Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi) in Turkiye.
The task of overthrowing the Syrian government was transferred to Riyadh, led by former intelligence chief Bandar Bin Sultan, who demanded a budget of $2 trillion, according to Bin Jassim. With the growing emergence of “jihadi” terrorist organizations, led by ISIS and the Nusra Front, Syrian authorities lost control over massive swathes of territory and a partial blockade was imposed on Damascus.
The Syrian war entered a new phase in 2015, after Russian military forces intervened at the request of Damascus. Less than a month later, the US launched an “international coalition” to militarily intervene in Syria under the pretext of fighting ISIS. This changed the contours of the war map. With the help of foreign allied forces, including Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the Syrian government regained control of much of the country, and established the ‘Astana process’ with Russia, Turkiye, and Iran to demilitarize areas outside of US and Kurdish separatist control.
Qatar’s continued Syrian role
Despite an ostensible decline in Qatar’s role in the Syrian war, Doha has not followed in the footsteps of most Gulf countries, who recognized their efforts to unseat Assad had failed. Even the Saudis, who played an oversized role in the assault against Damascus, dialed down their rhetoric against Syria in recent years, and have now moved to reconcile with Assad and his government.
Instead, Qatar’s adversarial footprint in Syria has continued unabated. It maintains its relationships with various Syrian opposition factions, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front (which controls Idlib and areas in the countryside of Aleppo), and has transformed the Syrian embassy in Doha into an operations room for adversaries of Syria.
Syrian opposition sources tell The Cradle that Doha continues its ties with all the armed factions in northern Syria, including the Levant Front, the National Army – which it co-funds with Turkiye – and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
These relationships guarantee Doha – which has pumped billions of dollars into the Syrian war – a desirable modicum of influence in northern and northwestern Syria. The Qataris have bet heavily on the jihadist factions there; these militias are less expensive to maintain because of their efficiencies in self-financing and on the battlefield. Furthermore, the jihadi groups have ultimately proven to be more loyal to Qatar’s interests, especially Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
Likewise, the presence of more than a million Syrians in hundreds of encampments near the Turkish border provides Doha – which has financed the construction of towns for the displaced in this region – with additional leverage to be used on Damascus when the moment arises.
This partially explains the reasons for Qatar’s continued refusal to restore relations with Damascus and approve the return of Syria to the Arab League. Doha seeks to exert leverage and extract a price from the Assad government in any future Syrian solution. But there are several other factors that impact Qatari intransigence on the Syrian issue:
First, Qatar currently hosts the largest US Central Command (CENTCOM) military base in West Asia, and Washington outright rejects any and all rapprochement initiatives with Damascus.
Second, is Assad’s refusal to normalize relations with Turkiye pending a wholesale withdrawal of Turkish military forces from occupied Syrian territories. So long as Syrian-Turkish differences remain unresolved, Doha will not move to improve its own ties with Damascus.
Third, is Syria’s own refusal to normalize relations with Qatar without the latter paying a substantial price for its role in inciting, expanding, and militarizing the conflict. Qatar is a small, wealthy emirate, far from Syria’s borders. Unlike other regional supporters of opposition militias – such as Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, and the UAE, who exercise substantial regional influence – Qatar has little value for Damascus other than the outsized wealth it can contribute to Syria’s reconstruction.
However, these deeply-embedded Syrian-Qatari differences do not preclude Syria’s return to the Arab League fold, from which it was suspended in 2011. Qatar cannot afford to exercise a veto on Syria’s return all by itself, nor will the organization tolerate being held up on this critical inter-Arab issue solely based on Doha’s stubborn refusal.
On 7 May, Arab foreign ministers will meet in Cairo specifically to discuss Syria’s Arab League restitution. Arab diplomatic sources inform The Cradle that the mere convening of the League Council at this extraordinary political level means that there is an agreement to endorse the Syrian return. They say that the council is likely to discuss two proposals: The first, submitted by Saudi Arabia, will require Qatar to abstain from voting, and the second is for Syria to initially return to the League as an “observer,” with the provision that it regains its full membership next year.
As for Kuwait and Morocco, which also ostensibly reject Syria’s return, the diplomatic sources reveal that Saudi Arabia has managed to persuade them not to oppose its proposal, which will make it easier for Doha “not to oppose what the member states of the Arab League are unanimously agreed upon.”