Qatar’s Diplomatic Dynamism

Qatar’s Diplomatic Dynamism

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem

Tony Badran
3rd November 2011 - NOW Lebanon

In the entire drama of the negotiation between the Arab League and Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the crisis in Syria, perhaps most intriguing has been Qatar’s maneuvering. While the US posture on Syria has left a leadership vacuum, and Iran has issued threats against any attempts to dislodge Assad, Qatar has sought to carve out a middle path. Still, the Qataris have shown a diplomatic dynamism, in keeping with their direct engagement with the Arab uprisings, while they have also operated within Iran’s red lines.
When it comes to the Syrian revolution, Doha has been the most publicly active Arab capital. Previously a close of ally of Assad, Qatar quickly became the target of the Syrian regime’s bile due to its positions on the popular uprising and the coverage it was providing on its influential Al Jazeera satellite station. Qatar also became the first Arab country to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus.
As a result, the Syrian regime’s media has been blasting the Qataris on a regular basis for months now. In fact, when Doha was named as head of the Arab ministerial committee tasked with dealing with the Syrian crisis, Damascus publicly objected, citing Qatar’s “biased and negative role, politically and in the media … which aims at escalation and incitement against Syria.” Damascus' complaints were to no avail, and the Syrians were soon trying to haggle with the Qataris in Doha before the final meeting in Cairo yesterday.
In the Egyptian capital, the Arab League laid out their general outline, specified by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jassem. Doha had sketched out their plan earlier in the fall, by means of the Qataris' new protégé Azmi Bishara, the former Arab Israeli Knesset member. In September, Bishara appeared on Al-Jazeera, showcasing Qatar's careful effort both to cater to the broad Sunni Arab rage against the Assad regime while simultaneously ensuring the acquiescence of its aggressive Iranian neighbor.
As Bishara explained, the initiative was not “aimed at saving the regime”—a response to the criticism of the plan by the Syrian protesters and oppositionists. Instead, he said, it was a process aimed at peacefully ushering out the regime. But Bishara also made reference to Iranian concerns, adding that those could be assuaged by guaranteeing the continuity of Syria’s “security and military doctrine,” which, he explained, means continued support for “resistance” movements—a clear reference to Iranian assets and interests.
The Qataris had tried to get Iranian support behind their plan, presenting themselves as a credible interlocutor with whom Tehran could cooperate in shaping an acceptable post-Assad Syria. There were even rumors at the time that the Qataris had offered to mediate between Iran and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Here Qatar faced competition from Turkey, which also tried to get Iran’s backing for a condominium of sorts between Ankara and Tehran in Syria. Turkey failed in its policy of non-alignment and has since seen its relations with Iran and Syria deteriorating.
Ankara’s policy failure and the continued absence of US leadership provided Qatar with another opportunity. But there are also obvious constraints. For one, the Iranians had issued clear warnings to Qatar, with pro-Assad propagandists claiming Doha was threatened that, in the event of a military intervention against Assad, the Qataris would be first to face retaliation.
Qatar’s vulnerability and its previous attempt to negotiate with Iran has led some, like former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, to declare that the current initiative, championed by Doha, was in fact an “Iranian initiative” via the framework of the Arab League, as it calls for dialogue with Assad, thereby keeping the Syrian president at the helm.
Indeed, Tehran’s aggressiveness and unambiguous declaration of support for Assad, especially in the last few days, stands in sharp contrast with Washington’s wish to remain detached and not naming any desirable outcome. The Obama administration's posture, then, is not merely timid but incoherent. Where Iran was brazenly threatening regional actors, and setting the parameters for the Arab League of what was acceptable in Syria, Washington was vaguely “welcoming” the Arab initiative.
However, since the Cairo initiative calls for dialogue between the regime and the opposition, it is at odds with American policy, which calls on Assad to step down. Only on Wednesday did the administration’s spokespersons belatedly reiterate the official position, declaring Assad illegitimate and calling on him to leave power. This reactive posture, however, betrayed the fact that the US was not asserting its leadership and was not involved in guiding the political initiatives floated by allied regional players.
In the end, the result of the Arab League’s initiative remains unclear. Is it an attempt to give Assad more room to maneuver, or is it an attempt to stop his killing machine? As far as Qatar is concerned, ambiguity may actually be desirable, allowing it to triangulate between Iran and the US. As far as Washington’s interests are concerned, however, the episode represents yet another failure of US diplomacy.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


arab-league, arab-spring, assad, lebanon, qatar, syria