Qatar and the Islamic State

by Giorgio Cafiero and Alex Stout 

In the fall of 2014, the Obama administration prioritized securing support from Washington’s allies in the Sunni Arab world before launching a multinational air campaign against targets in Iraq and Syria belonging to Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. Obtaining the endorsement and direct help from four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members (Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), along with Egypt and Jordan, marked an important political achievement for the Obama administration. Indeed, the last time Washington received support from so many Middle Eastern states in a U.S.-led military operation waged on Arab soil was the Gulf War of 1991.

At the beginning of the Washington-led air campaign against IS in September 2014, the son of now-King Salman and an Emirati female pilot from Abu Dhabi flew fighter jets in bombing runs over the “caliphate.” Officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were eager to have the press publish photos of a member of the royal Saudi family and an Emirati woman in uniform sitting in the cockpit of their fighter jets. However, since conducting these PR stunts during the coalition’s initial missions, the Gulf Arab states started to slip away from the multinational campaign against IS as their focus shifted to the conflict in Yemen.

In turn, officials in the U.S. have grown increasingly critical of the GCC members, maintaining that despite their high stakes in defeating IS the Gulf Arab militaries have not done enough heavy lifting in the campaign against the group. Last month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter complained that the GCC states are more determined to purchase expensive state-of-the-art military equipment than actually take part in combat anywhere in the region. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said that the GCC nations, despite their large military budgets, have failed to do enough in the fight against IS, which the lawmaker from Vermont often describes as a “struggle for the soul of Islam.”

Unclear Role in Anti-IS Coalition

Although Qatar has deployed 1,000 troops to Yemen, Doha has barely contributed to Washington’s ongoing campaign against IS. In fact, much uncertainty surrounds Doha’s actual role in the coalition. Contradictory accounts of Qatar’s official involvement have been plentiful. According to certain diplomats, on the initial night of attacks by coalition forces, Qatari aircraft were used solely for reconnaissance missions. Yet other sources have hinted that in conjunction with U.S. forces Qatari planes did attack IS’s strongholds.

Ultimately, Doha sought to maintain a low profile in the U.S.-led air campaign against IS. Qatar’s ambiguous role in the coalition was strategic and rather consistent with Doha’s foreign policy strategy of taking steps to avoid appearing as a Western lackey. A WikiLeaks cable in 2009 revealed that the U.S. State Department labeled Qatar as “the worst in the region” regarding counter-terrorism cooperation, maintaining that Doha’s security apparatus was “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals.”

Regardless of the pains which officials in Doha may take to avoid appearing as puppets of Washington, Qatar has been a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East for the last quarter century. In 1991, Doha and Washington concluded a Defense Cooperation Agreement. For the last 12 years, the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM)—a basing hub for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—has been headquartered at Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base. Last year, Washington and Doha signed an $11 billion agreement in which Qatar received Apache attack helicopters and Patriot Javelin air-defense technology from the U.S. According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the deal “underscores the strong partnership between the United States and Qatar in the area of security and defense.”

Rhetoric aside, Washington and Doha are certainly not on the same page with respect to a host of regional crises, including Syria. As the Obama administration’s genuine commitment to backing regime change in Damascus has become doubtful in light of the growing threat posed by IS and other hardline jihadist groups, Qatar remains heavily focused on backing Islamist fighters determined to topple Assad, rather than fighting IS.

From the start of the Syrian crisis, Qatar has maintained its official position that Assad must relinquish power. In pursuit of this endgame, officials in Doha have joined their Saudi and Turkish counterparts in sponsoring the “Army of Conquest,” a coalition of jihadist militias dominated by fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. It is worth noting that since Washington launched its air campaign against IS in Syria last year, the U.S. military has also targeted Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan (another al-Qaeda offshoot active in the Syrian conflict). Thus, Doha’s decision to officially support a Western-led campaign targeting Jabhat al-Nusra (a group that the U.S. State Department has designated a “terrorist organization” since May 2014) while also financing the same al-Qaeda offshoot underscores the truly contradictory nature of Qatari foreign policy. Furthermore, it is no secret that at the early stages of the Syrian crisis, wealthy Qataris played a pivotal role as financiers of the jihadist militias that eventually grew into IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Role in the Regional Order

Russia’s deepening involvement in Syria has created a new geopolitical fault line within the Sunni Arab world. Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE, although not openly supportive of Assad, have argued that defeating IS constitutes a higher priority than toppling the Syrian regime and have agreed to cooperate with Moscow in efforts to counter terrorism and extremism in the region.

Yet Qatar joins Saudi Arabia and Turkey in staunchly opposing Russia’s military strikes orchestrated in tandem with Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese Hezbollah forces fighting Assad’s enemies on the ground in Syria. On October 21, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah responded to Russia’s overt military intervention in Syria with threats to deploy Qatari forces to fight the regime. He said, “If a military intervention will protect the Syrian people from the brutality of the regime, we will do it.” Although Doha soon rescinded this threat, the fact that Attiyah made it, yet never hinted that Qatar would consider deploying a ground force to fight IS, spoke volumes about Qatar’s priorities.

From the outside it appears that Doha stands in solidarity with the West against IS. In response to the November 13 attacks in Paris, Qatar’s foreign minister declared, “Such acts aimed at destabilizing security contradict with all moral and humanitarian principles and values.” However, beyond such rhetoric and Doha’s minimal contribution to the U.S.-led campaign’s initial missions against IS last year, Qatar’s genuine commitment to the fight against the so-called “Islamic State” is questionable at best.

However, Doha’s refusal to prioritize Washington’s campaign against IS does not mean that Qatar does not view the extremist group as a threat. Given the series of attacks that IS-affiliates have waged in neighboring Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and one in Kuwait City, as well as the fact that at least a dozen Qatari nationals have fought in Iraq and Syria with Sunni militant organizations, it is difficult to imagine officials in Doha not viewing IS as a grave danger to all GCC members, including Qatar.

Although U.S. officials may wish that Doha would play a more powerful role in the Washington-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria, the Qataris may ultimately conclude that this contradictory foreign policy strategy best serves national interests. Even in the contradictory world of Middle Eastern politics, the state of Qatar is truly an enigma. Diplomats have reported viewing IS logos on cars driving around the nation’s capital, only 25 miles away from the USCENTCOM headquarters. Qatari foreign policy is rife with strategic ambiguity. According to Qatar’s calculus, the “Arab Spring” presented a valuable opportunity to use Islamist groups throughout the region to advance Qatar’s geopolitical interests. At this juncture, the Qataris are determined to not jeopardize this influence by making its alignment with the West extremely visible. Doha’s passive reaction to IS’s rise to power in Iraq and Syria, although not very well-received in Washington, factors into Qatar’s grander foreign policy strategy.

Photo: Qatari Mirage F1

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.