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Qatar’s embassy handover: masterstroke or gamble?

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We see a curious pattern in which Qatar breaks ranks, then sits back and admires its handy work allowing bigger states to push the Syrian issue forward down the path Qatar has paved. The problem is, Bashar hasn’t lost.

Michael Stephens
18 February 2013

Qatar’s decision to hand the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic to the National Syrian Coalition was a sudden but interesting move in the two-year Syrian crisis.

As with all things in Qatar we can only surmise why the decision was taken at this very moment and why. But there are some patterns that fit consistently with Qatar’s behaviour throughout the entire Syria crisis. Qatar has often acted schizophrenically, on the one hand imploring multilateral frameworks such as the Arab League, the UN, and the Friends of Syria to do more, whilst at the same time pursuing its own hard-headed realist policy often undermining the efficacy of those very frameworks it seeks more from.

The result is that we see a curious pattern in which Qatar breaks ranks forcing other states to follow, then sits back and admires its handy work allowing bigger states to push the Syrian issue forward down the path Qatar has paved. This has occurred for example in the removal of Qatar’s Embassy staff in July 2011 one month before other GCC states, its call for the Arab League monitoring mission to end, its call to arm the Syrian rebel forces, (and by extension its actions to arm and supply them), and finally its recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

So far only one of its leading initiatives has fallen flat, which was the call for an Arab intervention force by the Emir in September 2012.

Handing the Embassy over to ‘Ambassador’ Nizar al-Haraki is therefore in step with most other things Qatar has sought to achieve in Syria. Namely dragging the rest of the world into recognising the facts that it has established and thereby bending global Syria policy round to a more Qatari framework. But unlike some of Qatar’s previous actions there are risks with this step that could make Qatar look a little foolish if it doesn’t end up getting its way.

Qatar’s decision to handover sovereign Syrian territory to the National Coalition is tantamount to saying, ‘Bashar you have lost’. The problem is that although the Assad regime is creaking and besieged on many different fronts, Bashar hasn’t lost, and sensible military analysis would suggest he will not lose for some time yet. Secondly it suggests that there will be a complete house cleaning of the regime from power once a transition occurs. This is not going to be the case, the vast majority of countries involved on the Syria question acknowledge a transition to a new Syrian polity will include former regime loyalists; the unknown factor merely concerns what number of loyalists will be necessary.

To take this step when the future of Syria is still as yet undefined is potentially very damaging for Qatar. Other states may well hedge their bets to wait and see what the outcome of a regime transition will be first. It is by no means set in stone that the National Coalition will rule Syria in the coming months and years, its relationships to Free Syrian Army Groups, hardline Islamists like Ahrar al Sham, are still patchy and not developed and it is the stated enemy of Jabhat al Nusra. There is nothing to suggest that various brigades and battalions will not turn on the National Coalition in future, or that the Coalition will be able to prevent a hostile take over of Syria from more radical forces.

In such a future, Qatar would have handed off an embassy to an ineffective body that does not represent the reality in Syria. As I see it there are three potential outcomes, 1) Qatar gets its wish of a coalition-run Syria 2) Syria transitions to a hybrid government of Baathists and rebels 3) Syria becomes an arena for continued political competition and infighting. Only in scenario one does Qatar really gain anything and it is also the least likely scenario to come true.

Analysis through this particular lens shows us that Qatar is taking a huge gamble, and one that is very unlikely to pay off. It remains to be seen if other states will rally behind it to support the Qatari move by handing their own Embassies over to the NC. Stating that Qatar has isolated itself would be premature. However the risk is certainly there, and Qatar is not a powerful enough country to stand out by itself for long.

Leading from the front was always Qatar’s modus operandi in Syria, but the conflict is considerably more complex and bloody than it was this time last year, fraught with uncertainty, and in a sense the diplomatic measures really make no difference to the situation on the ground.

In this reality Qatar’s gamble is either a diplomatic masterstroke of unrivalled prescience or a foolhardy gamble which has the potential to alienate Qatar and decrease its regional standing. Only time can provide us with the answer to this conundrum.

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