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Qatar’s Plan B for Syria: a wise choice?

Although Saudi forces are largely untested in war it is doubtful Assad’s forces could withstand a full scale Saudi offensive launched from Jordan. This may well be the key to understanding what Qatar is doing.

This week Qatar once again brought itself into the spotlight through the actions of its two most powerful men, the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, and the Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani. In a televised interview with CNN the Prime Minister announced that there was a Plan B for Syria stating ''You need to make safe haven areas…  That would require a no-fly zone.” Less than 24 hours later his Emir stood in front of the UN General Assembly to announce that ''It is better for Arab countries themselves to intervene out of their humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed.''

These statements were nothing if not bold assertions of policy, but their boldness seems a little out of place. It is clear of course that the policy elites in Doha had given these two announcements considerable thought and energy. These were rational calculations made to maintain Qatar’s position in the Arab world and also to advance a solution to the Syrian problem which has now dragged into a tragic stalemate of carnage and bloodshed.

But here lies the rub, both a No Fly Zone and an Arab led intervention force will be fiendishly difficult to put into practice. Very few militaries in the world would openly risk exposing their aircraft to Assad’s air defences, which are still of sufficient capability to pose a severe threat. As such a massive strike over days would be required to remove all air defences prior to the establishment of an NFZ. This would require the United States to be involved, but it has so far shied away from any possible military action in Syria. Furthermore it is highly unlikely such an action could be enforced without a Security Council resolution. And we all know what will happen there.

As for the Arab countries leading an intervention, such an authorisation will at least require the backing and support of the Arab League. Egypt’s President Morsi has already indicated that he does not support an external intervention in Syria, so it is unlikely a consensus between the most powerful Arab states can be reached.

There is no doubt that this new policy track is risky, Qatar must now attempt to force through a course of action on both the NFZ and the question of Arab action or risk looking like its diplomatic influence is  fading. Qatar although extraordinarily rich is not a great military power and cannot deliver the punch to back up its words: it must rely on others to deliver that blow instead.

The point to note is that the Qataris already know all of this, so it begs the question: why given these constraints have they still pushed forward with this new line of thinking? Once again I have no doubt that the Emir in particular sees advocating military intervention as genuinely moral, that it is a universal good to remove Assad from power as soon as possible. Secondly the sense of frustration with the ongoing operation to assist the rebels is tangible. Almost every body I speak to who is close to these activities seems tired, and jaded, believing the operation to be what the American military might term a SNAFU. This sense of disappointment seems to have stung the Qataris into action to try to rectify matters and inject a renewed sense of urgency into multilateral activities in Syria.

The real question is not about Qatar however, but Saudi Arabia. Should Riyadh feel sufficiently bold (which would be very out of character) to mobilise and follow Qatar’s call for action, then a real substantive shift might take place. Indeed Saudi’s vastly superior technological capabilities could end the conflict quickly should it wish to mobilise its more capable units. Although Saudi forces are largely untested in war it is doubtful Assad’s forces could withstand a full scale Saudi offensive launched from Jordan.

This may well be the key to understanding what Qatar is doing. The Qataris are trying to drag Riyadh into a more assertive posture that produces a genuine sense of threat among Syrian decision makers. Backed by Jordan and possibly the UAE this would create a coalition that could force Assad into submission. The conflict is military at the end of the day, and it cannot presently be solved by political means. The Qataris understand this, and so does everybody else.

Perhaps the Emir was simply saying what we have all been thinking but have been too afraid to say.

About the author

Michael Stephens is Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf

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