Qatar: Kingmakers in Syria?
Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani attends the opening session of the 6th Doha Forum on Democracy Development and Free Trade in Doha, 11 April 2006. (Getty Images)
January 18th, 2012
10:21 AM ET

Qatar: Kingmakers in Syria?

Editor's Note: Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Jason Pack researches Libyan history at Cambridge University.

By Shashank Joshi and Jason Pack - Special to CNN

It used to be said that 'when America sneezes, the world catches a cold'. In the new multipolar world, a new aphorism may be in order. For 2012, we propose: 'when Qatar whispers, the tyrants whimper'.

It is difficult to overestimate the decisive role of Qatar in the Arab Spring revolutions. The Qatari-owned television station Al-Jazeera was instrumental in bringing protesters to the streets, and in broadcasting the images to the world. In Libya, Qatari special forces armed and trained the most proficient rebel militias, and Qatari intelligence assets cued NATO missiles.

Qatar has what Western powers lack in the Arab World: near-limitless reserves of disposable cash, a media network respected by Arab publics, and the ability to intervene with special forces and military trainers without risking tremendous blowback at home or in the court of international public opinion. Following their successes in Libya and buttressed by their expanding regional connections with ascendant Islamist movements and the new regional juggernaut Turkey, the Qataris have emerged as the quiet kingmakers. Alone, they cannot make things happen - but they can forge diplomatic coalitions, shape the popular narrative, and lend their unique skills to targeted interventions.

Now, after the latest round of farcical and failed inspections by the Arab League monitors, it appears that Doha has set its sights on dethroning Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Qatar's ruler, speaking to CBS's '60 Minutes' on Sunday, called for military intervention by Arab forces. Some commentators have reflexively dismissed this as more feckless fulmination by an ineffectual Arab despot. But those who see the Amir's statements as more empty promises fail to understand the new patterns in the Middle East. The Amir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is neither ineffectual nor a bumbling despot. Increasingly, he is looking like a highly adept statesman.

Qatar is smaller than the Bahamas in land area, has less than 300,000 citizens, and can yet boast the highest per capita GDP in the world. In the last few years, the Qataris have realized that the only way to protect their sovereignty against traditional Saudi meddling in their internal affairs is to act like a regional power. By pitching a stake in every major regional issue, they become more resilient to the frequent great power gales of the Middle East.

Although it is unclear what exactly the Qataris intend in Syria, they may envision a two-pronged assault conducted by an Arab coalition of the willing. Firstly, the Qataris could begin training and arming the Free Syrian Army out of bases in southern Turkey. Simultaneously, they might persuade other Arab countries to send small army contingents to protect civilians and surreptitiously arm and abet the rebels. This is not entirely pie in the sky; if the Amir of Qatar wills it, it can be so. Previously, using their links to Abdel Hakim BelHaj, the leader of the Tripoli Military Council at the center of the rendition row with Britain, the Qataris have already been indirectly associated with attempts to funnel foreign fighters and arms into Syria.

This is a pregnant moment in Syria's emerging civil war. It has become obvious to all involved that Bashar will not step down, that the Alawite generals of the security services will not depose him, and that the Syrian people will not stop rebelling until they are rid of him. Since the start of the uprising, Russia and China have shielded and supported the regime, while pro-American regional powers like Israel and Saudi Arabia have been nearly-paralyzed for fear of what follows the Assad dynasty.

A Western-led intervention is unlikely to materialize as it could not secure regional or security council backing. Only last week, a Russian ship bearing ammunition docked in a Syrian-government controlled port. Russia does not yet appear to grasp that its Arab ally is doomed to collapse. So any military action or peace keeping force would likely be without international legal cover. But that's hardly worried Qatar or other Arab states before – the Gulf Cooperation Council happily sent troops into Bahrain last year without bothering to ask the United Nations.

The Qataris and the Turks seem to have the gift for getting on the right side of history just before it is time. Both regimes were strong allies of Bashar al-Assad until the start of the uprising. Yet, by abandoning him and their previous allies in North Africa, they are successfully carving out strong relationships with the post-revolutionary states, especially by backing their moderate Islamist movements.

In the Syrian case, the Qataris may wish to take their previous involvement in the Arab revolutions - as a supporting actor - one step further. They may wish to shape the terms of any international or Arab intervention in Syria and later cast themselves in the role of kingmakers in the country that emerges from the chaos. This could be a bridge too far.

Qatar's bold vision of involvement in post-Gadhafi Libya has already caused prominent figures in the National Transitional Council and the non-Islamist militias to speak out against Qatar's meddling. The Arab League is also fundamentally divided. Two of Syria's neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, have no wish to go along with tougher measures – and could easily frustrate an embargo through their long land borders. Moreover, when Qatar has tried to broker peace deals in the Levant, as it did in Lebanon in 2008, more established regional powers were able to unravel the threads.

The Qataris seem to have mastered the role of agitators, facilitators, bankrollers, and power brokers - but punching so far above your weight can leave you perilously off balance.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shashank Joshi and Jason Pack.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

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