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.

Post by: ,
Topics: Middle East • Syria

soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    Another good-for-nothing, pro-Western Islam aristocrat throwing his weight around. No wonder the Middle East is in such a mess with these bozoes running things over there!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • Eldon

      Not pro western. Get facts straight.

      January 19, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
      • NOT SO FAST

        This is the same guy that overthrew his father to rule Qatar....What a low life. If that isn’t a dictator I don’t know what is. Syrian people want President Assad! That is why they don’t want the democracy there because they know he will be voted back in by his people. Qatar can go shove it and who disagrees can do the same. I’m Syrian from Homs living in the US and 85% of us want him so the other 15% can go live in Qatar or Turkey. It’s a shame when terrorists are given a green light in Syria. I hope they all follow bin laden to HELL

        January 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
      • Leif

        Not so fast: If Assad is so sure that he would be elected, then why is he so afraid of democracy?

        January 19, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
      • Daren

        he is going to have election on 2013.. I don't see a problem for him to relected!!

        January 20, 2012 at 7:07 am |
  2. j. von hettlingen

    What is Qatar's stance towards Iran? Both countries appear to be maintaining a strong diplomatic relationship. Iran wouldn't be amused by Qatar's determination to unseat Bashar al-Assad. It looks as if Qatar gets involved in countries, which are weaker than itself. Why doesn't Qatar mediate between Iran and the U.S. in the current crisis? Is Qatar afraid of being at loggerheads with Iran, as the Islamic Republic might be too strong for it to handle?

    January 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • Random bystander

      Qatar is actually a very small country with a military of corresponding size. The support they have lent out to other countries is solely through use of special forces and training corps. In a direct confrontation, Qatar would be crushed by most other countries in the region. Keep in mind that the total population of the country is less than 300,000.

      January 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        "The support they have lent out to other countries is" oil-money, which they have in piles!

        January 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Daren

      Qatar can't topple any leader... US is instructing Qatar and guide them to Divide MB and have Muslims Brotherhoods in power with some Slafi influence.. I am very confused and unable to understand US policy!! Have they learned anything from Taliban and Al-Qaida Experience?

      January 20, 2012 at 7:11 am | Reply
      • Andrey

        I guess you are indeed confused. Whatever happens in the Middle East now is against US interests. And both Qatar and Turkey act now in support of Muslim Brotherhood not because they are given instructions by US to do so – because they are ruled by islamists. And they want to overturn the regimes which were suppressing Islamist movement for so long. And it works. By the way both Al-Jazeera and CNN are very instrumental in helping them to achieve their objectives – uniting Arab world around you can probably guess what.... – Yes, right: Democratic Idea!

        January 20, 2012 at 9:54 am |
      • Pooja

        Your beautiful image was SEEN IN/Sua imeagm maravilhosa foi visto dentro:Thank you for sharing / obrigado compartilhando!______________________________________

        March 13, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  3. Jassim

    Qatar recognized one thing, in politics you don't have to choose sides. As long as you're clear and honest, you can win the respect of everyone.
    It will take years for all the others to recognize that.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
    • Michael, San Diego, CA

      Apropos and well put. Sheikh Hamed is doing what the Medici's and Rothchilds once used to do, facilitating the resources necessary to accomplish an end product. In his case to date he has an exemplary record and in relative terms there are few leaders that I can ascribe such accolades. My hat is off to you purely based on merit. Sheikh Hamed is probably the only Arab Sheikh or with an exception of a couple of world leaders that has a balanced approach to intervening in many troubled areas of the world.

      January 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • Daren

      Will see if you you ahte will be for Hammed in a year time.. He is small agent to US and the new Policy to replace leaders with Muslims Brotherhoods will be the biggest mistake ever.. Have we leaned from Iran Mistake!!

      January 20, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
  4. Mai

    The question we should ask ourselves is why Qattar pushing for democratic regimes across the middle east while lacking one at home? The most likely answer is democracy isn't what they are looking for but rather dominance to make up for their lack of actual power. By the numbers, their regular army is less than 2000 men (ouch). Their stance against protests in Bahrain and on their own land last March where two Qattaris were killed is an actual proof of their disinterest in democracy.

    January 19, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
    • pirate

      Because Qatar has one of the highest living standards in the world! Democracy is not needed if the ruling elite take good care of their citizens, invest heavily in education, and offer first class health care like the ruling family does in Qatar. Of course, its still a risk that someone in the line of succession will screw up, but not likely as almost everyone there is thriving!

      January 19, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
      • Mai

        That's for the people to decide. They could have everything in the world, but not the one thing they should. That something we call freedom. You can have a cat and feed and pamper it as much as much as you can, it will keep on trying to get out.

        January 19, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
      • Andrey

        That is right. Democracy is neither the most effective, no the most efficient form of rule. Its only "advantage" compared to any other form is that it does not work: thus it gives both domestic and international super rich free hand to do whatever they want. That is why it is so avertised and so imposed on small nations of the World. And the more natural resorce the country has – the higher is the urgency to establish a democracy there.
        And they always complain about dictators stealing money from people... That is nothing compared to what nation will pay for democracy – both in gold and blood!

        January 20, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  5. Michael

    This Amir of Qattar and his deputy prime minister, they are nothing but puppets of the United States. In addition, these two are Islamic Fanatics looking to create Islamic Fanatic nations in the Middle East. They might have accomplished their goals in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, But they have no chance what so ever in Syria, and they know the reasons why they can not create an Islamic Fanatic country in Syria.
    The Syrian People Love President Bashar Al Assad.

    January 19, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
    • Leoben

      Riiight. That's why they have been protesting and revolting and getting killed. Because they just *love* leader so so much,

      Catch a clue Michael.

      January 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • Nadia

      you r very delusional that people in syria love assad. If you point a gun at someone he will make even a donkey his father. Very few support assad and thats cause they have some personal interest.

      January 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • Daren

      I agree

      January 20, 2012 at 7:20 am | Reply
    • Matty13

      Yea, Everybody has their puppets. Hezbollah and Hamas are puppets of Iran. Syria is a puppet of Iran. Iran would like Iraq to be their puppet too. Don't use words from the sixies like "puppet" and then isolate it to the U.S. and somebody else. Mention them all.

      January 20, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • Christians hate Bashar

      Michael if such is your name you are wrong.
      If syrian people love so much this thug, than he should organise free elections.

      Christains and other minorities are doing a fatal mistake to support this regime who does not care about them and just use them as Dhimmis.
      Give me a name of one prominent Christian in the syrian army or in politics!!
      they should side with their brothers to throw him out otherwise they will pay the consequences because you have to be fool to think bashar will not fall sooner or later

      January 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply


    January 19, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
    • TrueSyria

      Did you say 88% of the country is against the president hahahaha. You must be on acid or pcp my friend. Get your facts straight before you post crap up like that again. Why dont you go to Syria and witness the reality of events going on, you will be in quite a shock with the people their. Wake up and get your head out of the sand and stop folloiwing this propagnada based news article

      January 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • Daren

      Doha Debate Forum did a polling 3 weeks ago and found out that Assad popularity 55% in Middle East 65% in Syria and this polling was conducted by opponent to Assad, Qatar…

      January 20, 2012 at 7:25 am | Reply
  7. Syed

    Why Saudia, Qatar , Baharin......other, first take care of their own homeland and do not export and support oil and terrorist at the same time. Where is the human rights when Saudi and Baharaini ruler killing there own unarmed protestor...movies available on youtube..

    January 19, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
    • TrueSyria

      Did you say 88% of the country is against the president hahahaha. You must be on acid or pcp my friend. Get your facts straight before you post crap up like that again. Why dont you go to Syria and witness the reality of events going on, you will be in quite a shock with the people their. Wake up and get your head out of the sand and stop folloiwing this propagnada based news article.

      January 19, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • TrueSyria

      Sorry that message was to the person above you

      January 19, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  8. zakaria

    In the wake of any revolution in the Middle East and as far as I remember (1958-till this moment) the final slogan will be death to America. The Gulf States and on top of them Saudi Arabia & Qatar don’t give a sh.. about the Americans. All they care about is themselves, their wealth, lifestyle, women, stomach and their private parts. They can care less about any American lives in this great country. They are not better than any other tyrants in that region (Shah, Saddam, Mubarak, Kaddafi ... etc.). This country is a great country and those hypocrites of the golf are destroying it with their money.

    January 19, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Random bystander

      yes, lets leave a post filled with grammatical and spelling errors, in addition to having no support. You make it hard to be patriotic when you do a great job of sounding ignorant and prejudiced.

      January 19, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply
    • Leoben

      Gee thanks for that. Thanks for adding some really intelligent insight to the discussion...

      January 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
  9. jack

    Good article except for the opinion that the Syrian government is about to fall. Russia and China do not see it that way, and I don't either. The situation is still developing but Bashar has the guns and the people to stay in control for now.

    January 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  10. sanaa

    is qatar a country??? it is more like a small insect that can be crushed by any one shoe, Mr qatari emir, never think that money can make an insect a giant lion, what happens now is a mistake in history that will be corrected very soon, and then mr. emir you will know the real size of your country

    January 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  11. Mike

    Another terribly fat sheikh. I weep for his harem. Yuk.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  12. TTM107

    According to The Guardian article that was posted on January 17, 2012:
    Most Syrians back President Assad, but you'd never know from western media. Assad's popularity, Arab League observers, US military involvement: all distorted in the west's propaganda war.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • jimmy cracorn

      In the same 60 min. piece they referred to in the article they mentioned that Syria seems to be split 50 50. There is no distortion.

      January 21, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
  13. Tariq

    death to america...death to zionists...they are one and same!!

    January 19, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • jimmy cracorn

      Yup thats me. Sitting around waiting for the end of days. LOL

      January 21, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
  14. Scott Dee

    Quite a bit of rhetoric contained in the comments section.
    Not all Americans carry themselves with dignity and respect, but some of us do.
    All people are different in ways that only God can understand completely.
    Differences in religion or mindset CANNOT lead to violence, lest humanity suffer
    unforseen consequences as a result.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  15. deb

    you call the amir of qatar names, but i do not see him taking the riches from his country hiding it from the people , murdering his own people , nor do i see unhappy qataria. protesting in the streets for any thing , could it be that the country is taking care of it self.qatar has been and is still an ally of the u.s. what i see in other arab courties is muslim killing muslims , is that right. if these kings of all these arab countries would of treated its citizens with respect and share of the wealth this killing would not be happening today.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  16. deb

    i just finish reading the comments made . ask any mother of a killed child, husband, brother, and so on, how she feels , what it must feel like to be protesting in the streets, being fired at, i cannot imagine , because i have never been in a situation of war brings death , and after it is finsh , who is left to clean up, rebuild , people. i hope the day will come when we will have peace for all on earth. but as long as their are people who rule for there own benefits, and not care about the people of there country, wht can we expect.............. continue from my above statement peace to all.

    January 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  17. outawork

    The mouse that roared!!!

    January 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  18. Matyas Exarch

    Syria is in Civil War with Terrorists. Do You Neihbors have Rocket launchers and Heavy Machine Guns? President Assad and the Army of Syria Protect and Respect the Catholic Patriarchs and Orthodox Patriarchs and Christian Peoples. Think for Yourself! My One Billion Catholic Brothers and Sisters and Quarter Billion Orthodox Friends Time to Support Our Patriarchs and Peoples. Matyas Exarch, Greek Military Bishop

    January 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Reply
  19. Karam

    Im Syrian from homs about 89% of the population is with al Assad the rest are terroristts / Muslim brother they can die in hell . 3000 people died 2800 loyalists and your fAke liens media will fail. Free Syrian army is fake no defectors all terrorists.

    January 20, 2012 at 2:13 am | Reply
  20. tony


    January 20, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply
  21. tony


    January 20, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  22. tony


    January 20, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
  23. Michael

    The Christians of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are against the creation of Islamic Fanatic Extremists Regimes which they imposse al shariah laws and they refuse the civil society laws. In Syria, President Bashar Al Assad have established the civil society law, and that is why President Al Assad earned the support of all the minorities in Syria and the Middle East.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  24. jimmy cracorn

    Let the Qatari's be the money and negotiators and let NATO be the military muscle. Assad has got to go. He will go. The question is how and by who?

    January 21, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
  25. outspoken

    When ants get wing, it is sure to die. Qatar is sure example of ant

    January 21, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  26. tony

    To Mr. Michael the ignorant..,ASSAD Regime was and still behind all the boming in Iraq in the name of Al Qada. They are the one who supported those fanatic in tripoli camp in lebanon last year. They are to be blamed for syrian people seeking religion as an outlet.Poverty lack of jobs, disparity between those who have and those who dont made the syrian people rise. I am extremly affraid that AL ASSAD regime will orchestrate a planned catastrophy using the christian s in syria to look good in the eyes of western countries. Syrian christians should be very vigilant.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:25 am | Reply

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