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How Qatar's hand casts Syrian shadows

As Qatar assumes an increasing role in the political diplomacy of the Middle East, its subtler interventions in Syria's civil war continue unquestioned.

Thomas MacManus
1 August 2014
Protest against foreign military intervention in Syria.jpg

A 2012 demonstration at the front of the Qatar embassy in Rome. Demotix/Stefano Montesi.

The asymmetrical proxy conflict currently being fought in Syria has many interested state parties and Qatar has taken a prominent, multi-track approach to influence the outcome. The Qataris have met with Assad, armed rebels, provided facilities for the US to train militants, paid defectors and–employing a novel methodology– used the trappings of civil society in the form of a ‘report’ on torture and the coverage provided by a ‘free press’. Qatar’s participation raises some interesting questions: What is the goal of this geopolitical manoeuvring? Are they using a civil society façade to achieve state goals?

Originally directed by Emir Khalifa, Qatar’s foreign relations policies have been refined by Emir Tamim (who did his A-levels at Harrow School, Middlesex in 1997 and graduated from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in 1998). Tamim became emir of Qatar in June 2013, after his father’s abdication. Former Al Jazeera journalist, Ali Hashem, argues that the policies are designed to increase Qatar’s influence on the world stage: “[Qataris] were trying to show themselves as the brokers of the region, brokers of peace deals, brokers of consensuses, whatever–”.

The New York Times described Qatar as, “a country that has been using its wealth to elbow its way to the forefront of Middle Eastern statecraft, confounding both its allies in the region and in the West”. Qatar financed Libya’s rebels who overthrew Muammer Gaddafi in 2011 and–perhaps bolstered by this result–has reportedly spent US$3bn supporting Syrian rebels, including an estimated US$50,000 a year package for defectors and their families. The New York Times also reported that Qatar used ‘a shadowy arms network’ to provide Syrian rebels with a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s. But before prematurely concluding that Qatar may be intervening in Syria for the benefit of all mankind, it would be prudent to look at Qatar’s own domestic human rights record.

Qatar’s human rights record

Qatar was a staunch supporter of Bashar al-Assad–a well-known violator of human rights–and as Hashem argues, “The Qatari regime used to be one of the strongest and the closest allies of the Syrian regime”. Despite the fact that Chapter III of the Qatari Constitution is devoted to rights and freedoms, Qatar is not a party to most human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The only treaties which have been agreed by Qatar are the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (acceded to 22nd July 1976), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (acceded to 24th April 2009), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified 3rd April 1995) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (acceded to 11th January 2000).

Qatari citizens are routinely denied free speech; Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami (also known as Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb) had a 15-year sentence upheld in October 2013, after he allegedly insulted the emir and his son in a poem. Full details of the charges are not known but according to Philip Luther (Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director) “the information available points to Mohammed al-Ajami being a prisoner of conscience who has been placed behind bars solely for his words.” In 2012, Amnesty International reported that Salem al-Khawari was arrested and held for 8 months during which time he was, “allegedly made to remain standing for up to 15 hours a day, prevented from sleeping and beaten”. No publically available investigation has been made into the allegations.

The Qatari Press

Al Jazeera, launched from Doha in 2006, is a media network with over 20 channels and broadcast to over 250 million households across 130 countries. In 2011, ABC News quoted Hillary Clinton as saying; “Al Jazeera has been the leader in that are literally changing people’s minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective”.

Al Jazeera’s self-imposed code of ethics includes a commitment to journalistic integrity, and the news outlet (both Arabic and English versions) promises to “[a]dhere to the journalistic values of honesty, courage, fairness, balance, independence, credibility and diversity, giving no priority to commercial or political over professional consideration.” However, Al-Jazeera’s independence has recently been cast into doubt, particularly with reference to its apparently biased coverage towards both sides of the Syrian conflict.

Al Jazeera English staff protested after their director of news insisted that the speech of Qatar’s emir to the UN lead the network’s coverage of the debate on Syrian intervention. The Independent reported that; “At the start of the revolution, [Al Jazeera] appeared reluctant to cover the story at all. But after the network's Qatari government paymasters switched allegiance to the Syrian rebels, Al Jazeera seemed to change tack. Senior Al Jazeera correspondent Ali Hashem resigned this year after claiming his Syrian report was censored.”

Hashem confirmed that Al Jazeera didn’t cover the first two weeks of the Syrian revolution; “it was like nothing was happening in Syria. Al Jazeera wasn’t covering...it’s the same way the pro-Assad media was dealing with the revolution”, and that Al Jazeera began anti-Assad coverage after he reneged on an agreement with Qatar, before his speech to Syrian parliament on 30th March 2014. After that, he argues, “... dealing with the revolution in Syria as the priority of the channel, and that there is no other revolution but this revolution.”

At best Al Jazeera's journalistic integrity is called into question; at worst, it is an outlet for Qatari public relationship management and state crime apologia.

The Torture Report

Earlier this year the Qatari government commissioned Carter Ruck solicitors to prepare a ‘confidential’ report into the ‘credibility of evidence about torture and execution of those incarcerated by current Syrian regime’. The report concluded that: “…there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government” and that the evidence would support charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. A July 2012 Human Rights Watch report based on about 200 interviews with former detainees and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies raised similar issues. Reports produced and used by civil society are powerful tools to apply political pressure to criminal regimes and even to level the threat of a visit from the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor. When reports emanate from states, and especially undemocratic regimes with dubious human rights records, they carry much less weight.

The Carter Ruck report makes no reference to the Qatari government. Carter Ruck have long worked as reputational managers for the Qatari regime and appear to have released this report in order to influence the Syrian peace process on behalf of Tamim. In a press release dated 20th January 2014, Carter Ruck announced that their report finds “clear evidence” of torture and execution of prisoners by the Syrian regime. And indeed, at the Geneva II talks–which commenced two days later–President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Jarba, produced a photograph taken from the report.

While there are some open questions, the integrity of the report is generally not in dispute–not least due to the high calibre of the international lawyers who compiled it. However, the timing of the report’s release may have had wide-reaching consequences–especially if it influenced the Geneva II negotiations by introducing the threat of international criminal prosecution.

The threat of international criminal justice

Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute (which establishes the ICC) so the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would have to authorise jurisdiction for the situation in Syria and UN investigators were gathering evidence for such a reference. But in May 2014, a UNSC resolution to that effect was vetoed by Russia and China. With permanent members on opposite sides of the conflict, it is difficult to see how any consensus on a referral could be reached. Richard Dicker (International Justice Director at Human Rights Watch) argues that, “When it comes to ICC referrals, the United States, Russia, and China seem more concerned about prosecuting their enemies and protecting their friends. This checkered approach has left victims of abuses in Syria, Gaza, and Sri Lanka without recourse to justice.”

The UNSC has only made two referrals to the ICC, in the cases of Darfur and Libya (UNSC Resolutions 1593 and 1970 respectively), and both included crippling caveats and/or lacked any serious follow-through. Dicker argues, “the Security Council no longer actively supported the ICC investigation and failed to press Libya’s new government to cooperate with the court. Similarly, the Security Council has done little to ensure that governments help to enforce Darfur-related ICC arrest warrants”. In the absence of reliable international institutions, the onus may fall on civil society to intervene. In September 2013 Mary Kaldor asked openDemocracy readers to contemplate ‘What to do in Syria?’, arguing that, “Of key importance is the involvement of civil society”. And this must be a genuine civil society and not Qatar’s press corps or ‘social interest’ lawyers-for-hire.

More recently, AFP reported that, Qatar has urged the UN Security Council to impose a ceasefire in Syria and to intervene. It is difficult to ascertain motivations behind Qatar’s foreign policy and it requires us, as Michael Stephens argues, to engage in “a guessing game”. Some policy appears to be contradictory; for example, Engel reports that Doha “is more or less openly supplying militant Islamist groups in Syria with money and weapons…such as the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade”. But this particular Islamist rebel faction is (in some regions of Syria) fighting against the Free Syrian Army, also supported by Qatar.

Qatar is apparently positioning itself to be a major leader in the Middle East. An associated rationale is financial self-interest. The Financial Times reported that Qatari institutions were heavy investors in Syria, including a $5bn joint holding company established in 2008. Al Monitor quoted a source close to the Qatari regime saying that there is a “need to set priorities, development and business or politics, and the overwhelming answer was the first.”

Whatever the motivation, influence should be exerted in a transparent way and in good faith. And for that reason, Qatar should avoid encroaching on the competences of genuine civil society. Important information regarding international crimes should be handed over to competent courts or civil society actors, and not used for political posturing. And Al Jazeera should be fully separated from the Qatari state as independence and integrity cannot be sustained under a cloud of doubt.

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