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What does Qatar want in Syria?

The ruling Emir is putting his money where his mouth is, and opposition fighters in Syria are receiving the benefits.

Even after 17 months the Syrian conflict continues to elicit shock and concern. The death toll rises with every passing day and the civil war becomes more entrenched and protracted as the rebels defend urban centres and launch desperate counter attacks against the full might of Bashar al Assad’s forces, who are attempting to crush the rebellion once and for all.

In recent weeks more information has emerged as to who is helping the rebel forces, how they are helping and the depth of the assistance provided. Time and again the same three countries are named, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The motivations for two of these countries are clear; Turkey is a neighbouring state and as such faces critical stability and security concerns. Saudi Arabia largely views the conflict through the Iranian lens, and the larger geo-strategic game that plays out between the two purported leaders of the Muslim world.

But what of Qatar, a tiny state in the Persian Gulf whose main strategic goal is to keep the strait of Hormuz open so that it can export its LNG across the world, bringing it untold riches? Syria plays no part in Qatar’s strategic calculations, so why is it getting so deeply entangled in a conflict into which even the great powers seem afraid to tread?

Qatar it seems is driven in this particular endeavour by the force of the Emir and his Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani. Both men feel that Qatar has a role to play in reconstructing the Arab world after the upheavals it has experienced. Wherever and whenever it can, Qatar then will seek to have an influence on the process of events in the region around it.

The trouble is that apart from his Prime Minister and perhaps a handful of advisors no one really knows what the Emir wants. We in Doha play a guessing game trying as best we can to interpret Qatar’s actions within a foreign policy framework. Many of my meetings are replete with shoulder shrugs and ‘don’t knows’: it is a frustrating business.

So here is my guess. The Emir wants to secure a legacy for himself as the man who took the Arab world into a more activist phase of multilateral action. As the man who pushed a lethargic, divided region to stand up and solve Arab problems with Arab action, backed by the use of force for those who don’t seem to get the message. A certain Mr Gaddafi and Mr Assad being the primary targets who needed ‘education’. 

For what it’s worth I do believe that Qatar sees both the Syrian and Libyan interventions in a moral light. Many Qataris are deeply angry that Syrians are being shot and shelled by their own government and don’t possess the means to defend themselves. Whilst I cannot speak for the Emir this is certainly a factor in the thinking of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim.

There are some who think Qatar has bitten off more than it can chew, a tiny state whose entire civil service numbers less than Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Interior cannot surely be expected to make the correct strategic calculations in such a complex and violent conflict. But persevere it has, and now Qatar is deeply engaged on a number of fronts, supporting disparate groups comprising the FSA along with its Turkish and Saudi allies.

It is a dangerous task, and as I have previously warned the winds of the Syrian conflict may yet blow back upon Qatar. But for Sheikh Hamad the expense is worth it in the long run, for what will emerge from all Qatar’s activism is a more decisive Arab arena, shorn of the weaknesses and divisions that have so long plagued it.

Will the Emir’s dream become a reality? Who knows, but for now the man is putting his money where his mouth is, and opposition fighters in Syria are receiving the benefits.

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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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