Qatar: Winning in Syria?

Cartoon depicting Qatar and America’s relationship over Syria (Credit: RT)

The latest defection of the Syria’s Envoy to Iraq, Nasaf Fares has been hailed as a significant development in the opposition’s fight against President Assad. After leaving his post, Mr Fares travelled to Qatar where he announced his defection on Al Jazeera TV. But was travelling to Qatar by chance or represent a calculated decision by the former Syrian envoy? Yes Al Jazeera are headquartered there, but since the uprising began in Syria, Qatar has been taking an increasing role in the Syria crisis and the region (Qatar has been head of the Arab League since 2009 and has been developing strong links with Islamists around the region).

Syria’s turbulent history with Qatar has oscillated between hostility and friendship. In the 1990s due to the countries increasing relationship with Israel, relations with strained at best, but by 2005, the relationship between the two countries was said to be at their best. However, since the uprising began in 2011, this cosy relationship has been steadily deteriorating. In early 2011, the collapse of Said Hariri’s government in Lebanon under Syrian pressure deeply offended Qatar, who’s key involvement in the Doha Accord in 2008 had ended the political crisis in Lebanon and attempted to bring in Syria from its regional isolation. This lack of appreciation of Qatar’s efforts by Syria likely helped contribute to Qatar’s decision to support the Syrian opposition in the fight against President Assad.

For the opposition, Qatar has proved a good friend indeed. The country has heavily financed the opposition since early 2012, by some accounts providing military personnel to help train fighters, hosted numerous Syrian opposition conferences in Doha and put its influential media behind the cause of the opposition (Al Jazeera).

Turkey who also heavily supports the opposition by allowing the opposition to base themselves in Turkey, allowing fighters to train in its territory and by hosting Syrian refugees in Turkey has shown Turkey’s willingness to exert influence in any post Assad Syria. But unlike Turkey, Qatar has had a recent history in mediating in conflicts in the wider region, famously in Lebanon, Sudan and Ethiopia, most recently strongly supporting anti Gadafi rebels in Libya, a popular move around the Middle East. This action, which Turkey was slow to react, indicated just how influential this small gulf country could be. In Syria, if Qatar continues its strong support to the Syrian opposition, Qatar not Turkey could be assured as the region’s influencer.

J Robinson – Twitter@ jprobinsons

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