May 17, 2013 11:26 am

How Qatar seized control of the Syrian revolution

As the Arab world’s bloodiest conflict grinds on, Qatar has emerged as a driving force: pouring in tens of millions of dollars to arm the rebels. Yet it also stands accused of dividing them - and of positioning itself for even greater influence in the post-Assad era. FT investigation by Roula Khalaf and Abigail Fielding-Smith
Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad and his wife (centre) being greeted by Bashar and Asma al-Assad in Syria, 2008©Reuters

Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad and his wife (centre) being greeted by Bashar and Asma al-Assad in Syria, 2008

A short drive from the rising skyscrapers of Doha’s West Bay, emblems of the once-sleepy Qatari capital’s frenetic growth, the three-starred flag of the Syrian revolution can be seen fluttering over a modern villa guarded by police cars. The villa is the new Syrian Arab Republic embassy in Qatar, representing not the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but opponents fighting for his removal. It is the only such embassy in the world, inaugurated by a Qatari minister two months ago with the usual diplomatic pomp, after hard lobbying by Qatar led the 22-member Arab League to hand over Syria’s seat to the opposition.

The diplomats working inside have recourse to neither a government nor a bureaucracy to serve Syrians abroad, lacking even the means to renew a passport. “Maybe soon,” mutters a hopeful junior diplomat. But Qatar is not a country that allows details to get in the way of ambition.

The opening of the embassy was a theatrical expression of this small, massively rich country’s single-minded lurch into Syria’s crisis. When it comes to backing Syria’s rebels, no one can claim more credit than the gas-rich Gulf state. Whether in terms of armaments or financial support for dissidents, diplomatic manoeuvring or lobbying, Qatar has been in the lead, readily disgorging its gas-generated wealth in the pursuit of the downfall of the House of Assad.

Yet, as the Arab world’s bloodiest uprising grinds on into its third year, Qatar finds itself pulled into a complicated and fractured conflict, the outcome of which has a decreasing ability to influence, while simultaneously becoming a high-profile scapegoat for participants on both sides. Among the Syrian regime’s numerous but fragmented opponents the small Gulf state evokes a surprisingly ambivalent – and often overtly hostile – response.

Syrian embassy in Qatar

The opening of the Syrian Arab Republic embassy in Qatar, March 2013

In the shell-blasted areas of rebel-held Syria, few appear to be aware of the vast sums that Qatar has contributed – estimated by rebel and diplomatic sources to be about $1bn, but put by people close to the Qatar government at as much as $3bn. However, a perception is taking root among growing numbers of Syrians that Qatar is using its financial muscle to develop networks of loyalty among rebels and set the stage for influence in a post-Assad era. “Qatar has a lot of money and buys everything with money, and it can put its fingerprints on it,” says a rebel officer from the northern province of Idlib interviewed by the FT.

Khalid al-Attiyah, Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs, and the point man on Syria, dismisses this criticism as nothing more than noise. “We’re a state, we’re mature … If we were concerned about what people say, we wouldn’t be here today and Qatar wouldn’t be as prosperous.” But Qatar’s role in Syria seems uncharacteristically prominent for a country that lacks the diplomatic experience and traditional heavyweight status of a more discreet Saudi Arabia.

Former Syrian coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib (left) and the Qatari minister for foreign affairs Khalid al-Attiyah opening the Syrian Arab Republic embassy in Qatar, March 2013©EPA/STR

Former Syrian coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib (left) and the Qatari minister for foreign affairs Khalid al-Attiyah opening the Syrian Arab Republic embassy in Qatar, March 2013

To some extent, the fact that Qatar is so exposed reflects the reluctance of western governments to intervene in Syria. However, for Qatar, Syria is also the culmination of an opportunistic foreign policy which saw Doha become the unlikely backer of other Arab revolts in north Africa – and a friend of those who emerge as winners, in most cases Islamists.

Qatar’s ruling family, the al-Thanis, have no ideological or religious affinity with the Islamists – they are simply not choosy about the beliefs held by useful friends. Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party, which won the first elections after the popular revolts. Some politicians in the region believe the emir is trying to position himself as the “Islamist [Gamal] Abdel Nasser”, as one Arab politician put it, referring to the late Egyptian president and the Arab world’s only true pan-Arab leader.

Most of Doha’s neighbours in the Gulf are hostile to the Islamist trend in the region, but this is of little consequence to a state that takes pleasure in being contrarian. Nor are the al-Thanis embarrassed by the contradictions of an autocracy cheerleading for revolution. “The Qataris say if there’s a tsunami coming your way you ride it, not let it hit you,” says a western diplomat describing Qatar’s attitude towards Islamists.

It is this kind of dynamism and risk-taking at an executive level that has enabled Doha to act as a regional power only a few years after being a diplomatic nobody. But the military stalemate of the Syrian uprising, in which more than 70,000 people have died, has also revealed the recklessness and political impotence that ultimately undermine Qatar’s objectives.

“The Qataris are overextended – their system runs on a few people at the top, and there isn’t much in terms of a bureaucracy,” comments another diplomat. In the case of Syria, those key players have been the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, his son and crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, the prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, plus Attiyah, the minister for foreign affairs.

As the Qataris have attempted to unite the political opposition by championing the formation of the Syrian National Coalition (the main front) they have been accused of dividing it – just as their efforts to shape a fragmented rebel army into a more coherent form by helping to unify the brigades under one command have contributed to its incoherence.

Not all of the criticism is fair. Partly it is driven by the irritation of many Arabs, at both state and street level, with what they see as an ambitious, nouveau riche state overreaching itself. “You can criticise them for hijacking the opposition but who else is helping?” acknowledges an independent-minded Syrian opposition member who, like many others in the region who were interviewed for this article, requested anonymity.

But the disapproval levelled at Qatar is pervasive. A senior rebel commander who has dealt with the Qataris suggests that Doha should look long and hard at why its role has also sparked so much animosity. “After two years it is time for everyone involved in Syria to review their actions and engage in self-correction,” he says.

. . .

For Sheikh Hamad, the 61-year-old emir who has ruled Qatar since 1995 after deposing his father, the road to Damascus has involved a spectacular U-turn. It wasn’t long ago that Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma were regular visitors to Doha, as guests of the emir and his second wife, Sheikha Moza. Qatari institutions were big investors in Syria, with a $5bn joint holding company set up in 2008 to develop everything from power stations to hotels. The emir also championed the international rehabilitation of Assad during his gradual ostracisation by the US, Europe and his Arab peers; Sheikh Hamad was instrumental in restoring Syrian relations with France in the years before the uprising, when he counted the former president Nicolas Sarkozy as a friend. Back then Syria was part of an alliance – with Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah – that seemed on the ascendant, and Qatar, with typical pragmatism and opportunism, saw a chance to ride the wave as well as to moderate Assad’s policies.

When the Syrian revolt erupted in March 2011, Qatar, like Turkey, reacted cautiously; Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned television channel, was criticised for downplaying the first protests. Behind the scenes, both the emir and crown prince Sheikh Tamim advised Assad against a military solution. But when prime minister Hamad bin Jassim went to visit Assad a month after the outbreak of protests, it became clear to Qatar that the Syrian hardman wanted “to kill people”, as bin Jassim recently recalled at a Brookings Institution meeting.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires a RPG as a Syrian Army tank shell hits a building across a street during heavy fighting in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 11 2012©Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters in central Aleppo, August 2012

One person who influenced the emir’s thinking at the time is Azmi Bishara, a prominent former Arab Israeli MP, exiled in Qatar (like many other Arab dissidents) after the Israeli government accused him of passing information to the Lebanese group Hizbollah during Israel’s onslaught on Lebanon in 2006 – a charge Bishara denies.

An adviser to the emir and the crown prince, Bishara has become something of a court intellectual in Doha. He is said to have been involved in the formation of the Syrian National Coalition, now the main opposition umbrella group, and to have been used to “test” opposition figures. He, too, had known Bashar al-Assad well, but then became an avid enthusiast of Arab revolts and the people’s thirst for democracy. Writing in July 2011, Bishara said that Assad could have stayed in power had he led the reforms that people wanted: “The regime chose not to change, and so the people will change it.” (Bishara was not available for comment.)

Although the emir did not make his position public until Saudi Arabia broke its silence over Syria in August 2011, the conviction took hold in Qatar throughout that bloody first summer that Syria’s was as much a revolution as anywhere else in the region. Following the pattern of the other Arab uprisings, Qatar’s instinct was to bet on the opposition. In January 2012, the emir told a US television network that Arab troops should be sent to Syria “to stop the killings”.

Doha’s leaders were particularly emboldened by the revolt in Libya, where Qatar had played the lead Arab role in the Nato-led intervention. Although they knew that Assad’s downfall would not be as easy as Muammer Gaddafi’s, they expected western partners would eventually step in on the side of the opposition. One senior Qatari official suggested in late 2012 that Syria would go the way of Libya, but over a much longer term. Assad’s removal, after all, served the strategic purpose of weakening Iran, his closest regional ally. So far at least, this gamble has proved a miscalculation. “We didn’t want to take the lead. We begged a lot of countries to start to take the lead and we’ll be in the back seat. But we find ourselves in the front seat,” lamented prime minister bin Jassim recently.

A portrait of Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo after parts of the city were captured by rebels, March 2013©Reuters

A portrait of Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo after parts of the city were captured by rebels, March 2013

Even within the Arab world, Qatar found much stronger resistance to action than was the case with Libya. “Before we get disappointed by the west, we should ask ourselves as an Arab nation what we’ve done – it [Syria] is an Arab issue in the first place,” says Attiyah, the minister for foreign affairs.

In the years before the Arab uprisings, Qatar had cultivated its role as a mediator, capable of talking to all sides on the divisions that polarised the Middle East. It hosted the US’s biggest military air base in the region, while maintaining cordial relations with Iran; it held contacts with Israel while simultaneously backing the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. On Syria, Qatar soon emerged as one of the few angry voices at Arab summits, pushing for a tougher line. “In Syria, Qatar became an active protagonist,” says a western diplomat. Having worked to become a kind of Norway of the Gulf, he adds, it also wanted to be “the Gulf version of the UK and France, and you can’t be both at the same time”.

. . .

Ahfad al-Rasoul is a source of envy among other brigades fighting in Syria. A relatively new player put together from several fighting groups, it is often linked to the gas riches of Qatar. Ahfad al-Rasoul is one of the few fighting coalitions in Syria that can be considered “effective”, boasts Khaled, a smartly dressed, laptop-carrying “liaison” officer for the group, interviewed by the FT in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border.

Not so, says Abu Samer, a commander from a rival group, who complains about shortages of weapons and ammunition. “If I was getting 15 per cent of what they’re getting, I’d do a lot,” he grumbles. Though Khaled insists his battalion’s good fortunes are thanks to a mix of funding sources, others such as Abu Samer see the hand of Qatar at work.

Supporting the armed rebellion was the inevitable next stage of Qatar’s deepening involvement in Syria. By early 2012, as peaceful protests gave way to an armed opposition, Qatar was scouring around for light weaponry, buying arms in Libya and in eastern European states, and flying them to Turkey, where intelligence services helped deliver them across the border. At first, say people with direct knowledge of the arms shipments, Qatar worked through Turkish intelligence to identify recipients, and then, as Saudi Arabia joined the covert military effort, through Lebanese mediators. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms transfers, says that between April 2012 and March this year, more than 70 military cargo flights from Qatar landed in Turkey.

Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the US Institute for the Study of War, which has published extensive studies of Syria’s fragmented rebel movement, says that as the conflict progressed, the Qataris worked through members of the exiled Muslim Brotherhood to identify rebel factions that should be supported. For example, she says, that is how they linked up with the Farouq brigades, one of the largest and more mainstream factions. Meanwhile, opposition sources say the Qataris have also sent their own special forces to find insurgent groups, and people involved in the weapons business say a Qatari general has been the point man on arms deliveries, travelling to the “operations” room that was set up first in Istanbul and then in Ankara.

However, it is difficult to point to rebel brigades that are exclusively Qatari-funded or backed. Ahfad al-Rasoul, for example, is also thought to be receiving support from Saudi Arabia. Equally, the erratic and limited nature of weapons shipments means that even recipients of Qatari support are not always aware of Doha’s role. Mahmoud Marrouch, a young fighter from Liwaa al-Tawhid, the rural Aleppo group that is believed to have been a major recipient of Qatari arms, says Qatar is like the rest of the world – promising weapons but not delivering. What the fighters have, he says, was seized from regime bases, or purchased on the black market. “The Qataris and the Saudis need a green light from America to help us,” he adds.

A rebel leader in the northern Aleppo province, who works with Liwaa al-Tawhid, says he has also received a Saudi intermediary who goes around rebel-held areas distributing funds. “Groups get funding from both Qatar and Saudi Arabia and they deceive sponsors sometimes,” comments O’Bagy. Indeed, if Qatar is, as its detractors say, seeking to build up a proxy force in Syria to implement its regional agenda, it is doing so in an environment which is not conducive to either loyalty or cohesion. With so many different outside sources of sponsorship and no stable organisational structures, rebel groups lurch from alliance to alliance and continually rebrand themselves in the search for support.

Ironically, although the relationship between Riyadh and Doha has long been characterised by mutual suspicion, in many ways they have worked very closely on Syria. However, a crucial division over the Muslim Brotherhood has undoubtedly led to the pursuit of divergent agendas on the Syrian battlefield, with harmful consequences for an opposition in desperate need of unity. For the Saudis, the handful of secular rebel factions, plus the Salafi groups that espouse a stricter Wahabi Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, are vastly preferable to the Brotherhood, a more organised political group and therefore a greater political threat. “The Saudis say ‘No to the Brotherhood,’” says Riad al-Shaqfa, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Qataris, on the other hand, are “playing a positive role”, though Shaqfa insists that his group’s funding is from its own members, not from Doha.

Khalid al-Attiyah denies any tensions with Saudi Arabia, saying co-operation is much closer than people assume, with daily consultations. However, rebel sources and analysts say that by September last year, the rivalry had intensified to the point where the Qataris and Saudis were creating separate military alliances and structures. As complaints poured in from opposition leaders and western officials, the two states agreed to bring the structures together under the supreme military command, headed by the western-backed general Selim Idriss.

However, commanders who work with Idriss say that neither country is following through with its promise to bolster the supreme military command, instead continuing to work independently. One reason could be that the Gulf states worry that their limited supplies would be distributed too broadly by the supreme command, instead of reaching only the most effective factions.

But the behaviour has bred resentment. “Qatar and Saudi Arabia … are playing out their rivalries here, they are dividing people,” says Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, the head of the Aleppo revolutionary military council. Speaking from one of his bases on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, he adds: “People will remember those who gave without having an agenda. The Syrians are clever, they know when there is an agenda.”

. . .

By late 2012 a new factor was emerging in Syria, one that had the potential to complicate Qatar’s relationship with the west. The extremist group Jabhat al-Nusrah was gaining ground, playing a prominent role in dislodging the regime from military facilities in northern Syria. In December, the US felt sufficiently alarmed to add Nusrah to its global terrorist list.

Concerned that Qatar’s level of tolerance for radical Islamists was higher than theirs, western governments also wanted safeguards in place to ensure that weapons did not end up in the hands of jihadi groups like Nusrah. The problem, says one former senior US official, was that “the Qataris felt it didn’t matter who you give to, what’s important is to bring down Bashar.”

A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah reacts as a picture is taken of him as their base is shelled in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, March 14, 2013©Reuters

A fighter from the Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah in Raqqa province, March 2013; Qatar says it has never backed the group

According to him, the objective in Washington became “to keep the Qataris from doing whatever they want”. So the US instituted a “consultative process”. Two “operations” rooms that oversee weapons deliveries were set up, one in Turkey, the other, more recently, in Jordan. They include representatives from nearly a dozen countries. The Qataris, says the former US official, were co-operative.

Yet allegations that the Qataris have – directly or indirectly – helped Jabhat al-Nusrah have not gone away. At least one Arab government recently said as much, although experts on jihadi movements say the extremist group’s funding comes from al-Qaeda in Iraq and from private donors in the Gulf, not from governments.

Yet even with the “consultative process” in place, leakage might be inevitable, whether through the funding of rebels or through the massive charitable contributions from the Gulf that reach Syria. “Because the Free Syrian Army [FSA] groups work so closely with non-FSA groups these weapons are spreading just because they are fighting side by side – and maybe the groups trade arms with each other as well,” says Eliot Higgins, who examines and records weapons used in the Syrian conflict on his well-followed Brown Moses blog.

Attiyah says Doha has never backed Nusrah, and blames the international community’s inaction on Syria for allowing it to flourish. “Is it the Security Council’s delay in taking a firm resolution against Bashar al-Assad and his regime that has made [Nusrah] emerge? In my opinion, yes,” he says. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the prime minister, is even more dismissive of allegations of Qatari support for extremists, joking in his Brookings presentation that such rumours are spread by jealous neighbours to tease Qatar.

Beneath the quips, however, are signs that Qatar’s influence over military supplies to the rebellion may be waning, as its role in weapons deliveries takes second place to that of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has more developed networks to source weapons and it has been working closely with Jordan to bolster rebel groups in southern Syria that are not tied to Nusrah.

. . .

Many Syrians have probably never heard of Mustafa Sabbagh, though he is considered the most powerful man in the political opposition. The owner of a building material and contracting company, the 48-year-old secretary-general of the National Coalition lived in Saudi Arabia for much of the past decade. He doesn’t make many speeches, or issue statements, but he does oversee the coalition’s budget, to which the Qataris are the biggest donors, and is responsible, as one western official says, “for writing the cheques”. While seen by both friends and detractors as a shrewd man who appealed to Qatar officials’ business-minded attitude, Sabbagh has come under criticism for supposedly using his position to control the opposition and further Qatari influence.

Tensions between him and some of the secular members of the coalition exploded into the open recently after the controversial election of an interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, in March. The row over Hitto’s appointment was so bitter it caused tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and pushed the Saudis to become more active in opposition politics, which they had largely left to the Qataris. According to pro-Saudi opposition figures, negotiations are now under way to resolve the dispute.

Qatar’s involvement with Syria’s political opposition has generated even more controversy than its support of rebel groups. The dissidents are a fractious assortment of cliques, but they play an important role in shaping international policy. While it was Turkey that helped form the first credible opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council [SNC], in August 2011, Qatar quickly embraced it and contributed to its funding. The SNC, however, fell victim to infighting, which gave the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised bloc within it, the greatest influence. As secular voices began dropping out of the SNC, western nations, led by the US, pressured the Qataris to help form a broader opposition based on an initiative proposed by Riad Seif, a well-respected Syrian dissident. The new body, the National Coalition, was announced in Doha in November 2012.

Sheikh Hamad with President Obama at the White House, April 2013©Reuters

Sheikh Hamad with President Obama at the White House, April 2013

It was no secret that Qatari officials were less convinced of the need to improve the SNC. Their view appeared to be that dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood was neither as great as claimed, nor an issue. A former US official who tracked the process of the creation of the coalition said dealing with the Qataris at the time was like a “war of attrition”.

However, claims of Qatari dominance of the opposition persisted, even after the coalition was created. True, the Muslim Brotherhood was no longer the main component, but a new bloc of more than a dozen members, brought in by Sabbagh as representatives of local communities in Syria, sparked new disagreements. It was seen as another bloc that was loyal to Qatar.

Each of these members was supposed to represent a local council in Syria’s different provinces, and together the councils received $8m from Qatar soon after the formation of the coalition. Qatar was also the first – and possibly the only – country to provide funding for the coalition budget, to the tune of $20m, and it delivered the first $10m out of a pledged $100m package for the organisation’s new humanitarian assistance unit.

In an interview with the FT, Sabbagh said that the Qatar label that has stuck to him is inaccurate and unfair. Peppering his words with praise for Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the Syrian cause, he says his relationship with Qatar is confined to what he calls “logistics” support for a business forum that he founded after the revolt against Assad broke out. The forum had mobilised funds from merchants inside and outside Syria to support the Free Syrian Army. Sabbagh insists that the representatives of local councils that he invited into the coalition were an attempt, even if imperfect, to raise the representation of people inside the country in the main opposition front. “It’s inevitable [that there should be controversy about them] because there are no elections. It was an experience that needed maturing,” he says.

Attiyah, meanwhile, says he has no closer relationship with Sabbagh than anyone else in the coalition. He also points out that the coalition with its various components, including the local representatives, was not created by Qatar alone but with the help and blessing of Arab and western officials.

. . .

In Syria itself, the number of dead continues to rise and Bashar al-Assad is still stubbornly clinging on to power. Whether Qatar’s venture into Syrian opposition politics will have any returns will depend on whether Syria survives as a country – something that is by no means assured. Perhaps for the Qatari emir, the demise of Assad will be sufficient satisfaction. In theory, Qatar could also emerge with multiple points of influence through Islamists and loyal brigades. But it has already created many enemies inside Syria, and not just among pro-regime supporters. So torn apart is the fabric of Syria’s society, and so radicalised and suspicious its battered population, that the Qataris are more likely to find that they are neither thanked – nor even wanted – there.

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Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor; Abigail Fielding-Smith is the FT’s Lebanon and Syria correspondent

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Who’s Who?

QATAR

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

the hereditary ruler or emir of Qatar

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani

the emir’s second son and crown prince

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani

prime minister of Qatar

Khalid al-Attiyah

Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs

-------------------------------------------

SYRIA

Free Syrian Army (FSA)

label used for an array of non-jihadi rebel groups

Farouq brigades

a powerful rebel formation originally from Homs, now spread out across the country

Ahfad al-Rasoul

a Syrian rebel brigade often linked with Qatar

Liwaa al-Tawhid

a coalition of fighters in the north Syrian province of Aleppo, also said to have received Qatari support

Jabhat al-Nusrah

an extremist Syrian rebel group linked to al-Qaeda

Supreme Military Command (SMC)

the most recent attempt at organising the armed opposition. Many groups are technically affiliated with it but it wields little influence on the ground

Selim Idriss

defected general in charge of the SMC

National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces

(usually known as “the coalition”) main umbrella group for Syria’s political opposition in exile

First meeting of the National Coalition, Qatar, November 2012©AP

First meeting of the National Coalition, Qatar, November 2012

Abdul Jabbar Akaidi

head of the SMC-affiliated Aleppo military council

Moaz al-Khatib

Damascus cleric who resigned as president of the coalition earlier this year but remains an opposition figurehead

Mustafa Sabbagh

secretary-general of the coalition

Ghassan Hitto

interim prime minister elected by coalition members

Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

Islamist movement exiled since leading an unsuccessful rebellion in the 1980s. Separate to but ideologically affiliated with its Egyptian counterpart

Syrian National Council (SNC)

precursor to the coalition, now a powerful faction within it

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