by Giorgio Cafiero
Recent developments have set back Qatar’s five-and-a-half-year campaign to topple the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Donald Trump’s win last month and the president-elect’s vows to sever Washington’s limited support for Syrian rebels, Russia and China’s votes on Dec. 5 to block a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire in Aleppo, and decisive gains scored by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in the ruined city have all severely undermined Doha’s objectives in the war-torn country. Yet rather than abandoning Qatar’s goals in Syria, officials in Doha have voiced their commitment to continuing to sponsor anti-Assad forces regardless of the Trump administration’s policies vis-à-vis Damascus.
Last month, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman declared that Doha’s “support [for Syrian rebels] is going to continue, we are not going to stop it… Even if the regime captures it [Aleppo], I am sure they will have the ability to capture it back from the regime.” Sheikh Mohammed continued: “But if they want to change their minds, are we going to change our position? For us, in Qatar at least, we are not going to change our position… based on principles, values and on our assessment of the situation there.”
Yet if the SAA, with help from the Russian/Iranian militaries and foreign Shi’ite fighters, conquers more territory, what can Qatar realistically plan to achieve by continuing to support anti-regime forces in Syria? Unquestionably, Doha must reduce expectations about regime collapse and adjust strategies at this juncture in the Syrian civil war. The recent gains by pro-Assad forces in Eastern Aleppo may ultimately spell the end of rebel control of any major urban centers in Syria, leaving Qatari-backed rebels in a far weaker position.
The Pivotal Role of Aleppo
The rebels’ total loss of Aleppo would devastate the morale of opposition across Syria. Before the SAA intensified its attacks on the city’s rebel-controlled neighborhoods with stepped-up Russian support this year, the opposition sought to establish Eastern Aleppo as a model for a post-Assad Syria free of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The “moderate” Syrian rebels’ electing of local officials, administering of schools, and maintaining trade with other “liberated” portions of the country as well as Turkey all demonstrated the opposition’s governance capacities, according to certain voices in Washington and other Western capitals who have advocated arming such forces with heavier weaponry.
If the SAA consolidates its recent gains in Aleppo and secures the rest of the city under its control, the regime will be in a stronger position to deploy to Raqqa and eject IS from its capital in Syria. Officials in Damascus are certainly cautiously optimistic that under such a scenario the U.S. may (directly or indirectly) support the SAA in its fight against IS after Trump enters the Oval Office on January 20.
Yet even if pro-regime forces fully eject all rebels from Aleppo, it would be would be premature to conclude that the SAA’s fight with the “moderate” opposition is over. Although the rebels have suffered massive casualties in the city, many have fled and could regroup in Syria’s rural areas. Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, could help these rebels sustain their armed struggle by continuing to provide weapons plus political, moral, and financial support.
Perhaps officials in Doha see the regime’s seizure of more neighborhoods in Eastern Aleppo as a temporary setback to their cause in Syria. The fluid nature of the civil war suggests that no side’s gains are irreversible. As the SAA remains highly dependent on Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese support, it is not clear how much longer the Kremlin, Tehran, and Hezbollah will continue sacrificing blood and treasure to prop up Assad’s embattled albeit resilient regime. Even if the SAA consolidates its takeover of the besieged and devastated city, Qatar and its regional allies could create more problems for Damascus in other parts of the country for, at least, the purpose of staying relevant in the brutal conflict and perhaps securing greater leverage at future roundtable talks.
Qatar and the GCC’s Interests in Syria
Since 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council has been mostly unified in its support for regime change in Syria. Yet due to the United Arab Emirate’s fear of Sunni Islamists’ rise to power throughout the region, Kuwait’s sensitivities regarding its own Shi’ite population, Bahrain’s internal crisis consuming the attention and resources of officials in Manama, and Oman’s cordial ties with Iran and Muscat’s traditional “non-interventionist,” neutral, and non-sectarian foreign policy, the only GCC members to invest heavily in the campaign to oust Assad have been Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
For Doha and Riyadh, the stakes in Syria have been high since the country’s crisis erupted in 2011. From the Saudi perspective, Damascus’ pro-Iran/pro-Hezbollah foreign policy threatened to enable the Islamic Republic to consolidate its expanded power throughout the Levant by securing an axis of Shi’ite dominance from Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean. Although Qatar has also viewed Iran as a strategic threat, Doha has been more focused on the Syrian crisis for the purpose of growing its influence throughout the Arab world, viewing the Sunni-majority country as an area for the Persian Gulf emirate to empower the local Muslim Brotherhood and boost the Qatari-backed movement’s franchises elsewhere.
Ideology, pride, and emotions factor into the equation. Syria’s importance has grown for Qatar as it seeks to establish itself as a promoter of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic causes. In the words of Middle East expert Hussein Ibish:
Syria is often regarded as the birthplace of Arab nationalism. No other modern Arab political trope – including Palestine with its powerful emotional resonance, or Saudi Arabia with its religious authority – evokes the same nationalistic sentiments. The first pan-Arab state was established by Prince Faisal in the immediate aftermath of World War I with its capital in Damascus. Although the ‘Arab Kingdom of Syria’ existed for only a few months, it had an enormous impact on the Arab political imagination and contributed to a set of ideas that were extremely influential throughout the 20th century, and continue to resonate into the 21st.
Yet recent events, which have underscored the Damascus regime’s strength vis-à-vis GCC-backed Sunni rebels, suggest that Qatar’s investments in Syria have had diminishing returns. In 2017, the Qataris will have to reassess their interests in Syria and strategies for advancing their interests throughout the Levant. Although back in 2012 Emir Tamim’s father called for sending Arab troops to fight the SAA, the emirate has had minimal direct military involvement in Syria. It has participated only in the Washington-led campaign against IS, not the Damascus regime. U.S. officials have stated that Doha’s limited role was mainly logistical.
In an earlier stage of the Syrian crisis, officials in Doha calculated that Qatar could help sway the outcome of the conflict (as the emirate did in Libya in 2011) by using its financial resources to back elements within the armed opposition. Yet the Arab Gulf sheikdom has witnessed the shortcomings of such a strategy. With Russia and Iran demonstrating their willingness to take risks on the ground in Syria to beef up Assad’s position, and the Obama administration demonstrating its unwillingness to step up substantial support for any forces fighting Assad, Qatar’s involvement in the civil war has not paid off for Doha.
It remains to be seen how much longer Qatar will maintain its rigid position against Damascus and how Doha adjusts its strategies for backing Syrian rebels. Qatar will likely shift its focus from regime change in the near-term to at least staying relevant in the raging Syrian civil war, which has left Aleppo and many other areas of the country in rubble and resulted in over 400,000 deaths.
Photo of Syrian rebels courtesy of Freedom House via Flickr.