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Can Qatar Simultaneously be Pragmatic and Principled in Syria?

As the Syrian Civil War continues in its tenth year, it is safe to say that the regime in Damascus is not on the verge of falling to its enemies. President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents in the Gulf have accepted this reality. Yet while Syria is de-facto partitioned by the United States, Russia, Iran, and Turkey, hardly any Arab states have regained much of their influence in the war-torn country. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have re-established diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, trying to gain a role in the post-war establishment. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, however, still insist that Assad is illegitimate, and believe the conflict should be resolved through the roadmap outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Conference agreement.

However, Qatar’s posture vis-à-vis Syria may be shifting with the advent of a new tripartite platform, including Russia and Turkey, aimed at resolving major points of contention in Syria’s civil war. Although Doha still maintains its official position that Assad has lost legitimacy, in practical terms, Doha is aware of the regime’s impending victory in the decade-long war. This reality may push Qatar to deal with the Damascus regime indirectly and informally in the interest of pragmatically approaching post-conflict Syria. Ultimately, Qatar’s diplomatic engagement with Russia on Syria shows that even if Doha sticks to its official position on Assad, the Qataris might show some flexibility in their dealings with the Syrian government in the short- to medium-term.

Qatar’s Foreign Policy Principles

Shortly after Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, Qatar sided against Assad’s government and supported the opposition forces. Considering its tiny size and small population, Qatar was, proportionately speaking, the largest foreign source of support for the opposition groups. Over the past decade, Doha has not wavered in its stance against Assad. Even though there is a wider trend in the Arab region to re-engage Damascus, Doha has remained rigidly opposed to legitimizing the Syrian regime, at least in its current form, due to what experts describe as core principles of Qatar’s foreign policy. Most evidence suggests that Qataris strongly support their government’s position that Assad is illegitimate, and experts contend that Doha could be the last Arab capital to formally reconcile with Damascus. “[Among the Qataris], I do not detect any appetite at all for normalizing relations with Assad: he remains seen as beyond the pale,” explained Dr. Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University in Qatar.[1] “Everyone in Qatar is very firm on this in the same way that Qatar is very firm on Palestine,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defense Studies and fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies.[2] “It’s one of these issues of principle where Doha is unwilling to bend.”[3]

Diplomatic and strategic factors are in play. Qatar has vested interests in maintaining close alignment with Turkey, Doha’s most important ally in the Islamic world. Moreover, the United States and almost all European Union (EU) member-states view Assad as illegitimate. Qatar’s position on this sensitive issue therefore receives strong support from most Western governments that favor treating Assad’s Syria as a pariah state on par with North Korea. Looking ahead, many analysts expect Biden’s administration to maintain the Trump-era sanctions known as the “Caesar Act” on Damascus. The White House will likely note that Qatar, unlike the UAE, aligns with US interests on this issue.

Furthermore, it can be difficult for states to make dramatic changes on foreign policy issues that matter to them, especially when important principles are involved. Doha’s reversal of its Syria policy would not be easy, especially given its ‘revolutionary’ foreign policy that pitted Qatar against some dictators amid the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010/2011. As Dr. Nonneman put it, within the upper echelons of power in Doha, there is “probably a sense that it doesn’t do to flip positions now, as this would undermine Qatar’s claim to a responsible, pragmatic but principled foreign policy.”[4]

The “Doha Process”

On March 11, a meeting in Doha kicked off a “trilateral consultation process” whereby Qatar, Turkey, and Russia converged for the first time to resolve Syria’s decade-old conflict through a political solution. Russia’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, stressed that the Doha talks were not intended to replace the Astana Process, which Moscow entered with Iran and Turkey in 2017 to pursue the same goal. “I can only welcome Qatar’s desire to make its contribution to creating the conditions for overcoming the current tragic situation in Syria,” said Lavrov. Despite not formally being a part of the Doha Process, Iran has expressed its support.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani emphasized the “crucial need to lessen the suffering of the Syrians” and stated that he had spoken with his Turkish and Russian counterparts about proper mechanisms for delivering humanitarian assistance to all of Syria’s regions. Within this context, in which Doha and Moscow seek some common ground despite having fundamentally different positions on Assad’s regime, there is a possibility of Qatar becoming more flexible. “If all parties are willing,” as Dr. Krieg suggested, there will possibly be “a rapprochement between Russia, Qatar, and Turkey on the matter of Syria which would be not directly a rapprochement with [Qatar] and the [Syrian] regime, but it would allow Doha to make concessions locally in providing some sort of stability that would allow for the uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian aid.”[5]

The process of beginning low-level reengagement between Doha and Damascus could pick up sooner if the Syrian government makes concessions that would make it easier for Qatar to defend negotiations. The Syrian regime surrendering some territories in the north, freeing political prisoners, or agreeing to a power-sharing agreement with opposition elements are potential moves Damascus could make which might impact Doha’s stance on the regime. Importantly, such actions on the Assad government’s part would give Qatar political cover to match concessions while preserving its principles.

Another major concession that Syria could make, although it is very unlikely to, would be the removal of Assad as Syria’s head of state and his replacement by another member of the Ba’ath Party. Unlike Iran, Russia is not necessarily fully committed to propping up Assad as an individual, as opposed to Syria’s regime in general. Within this context, there could be a remote chance of Moscow and Doha demonstrating greater flexibility and pushing for a solution to the Syrian crisis that keeps the ruling order in power—albeit with “a new, more accountable process of decision-making within the Ba’ath Party that is not necessarily tied to Assad,” as Dr. Krieg explained.[6]

Geopolitics and Pragmatism

Looking ahead, post-conflict Syria will matter significantly to the greater Middle East. Although Qatar might correctly view the resources that it poured into the Syrian opposition as a sunk cost, in the future Doha will still seek to be an important geopolitical actor in the country. With the UAE becoming increasingly engaged with Damascus, the Emirati-Qatari rivalry seems likely to play out to some extent in Syria, with both Gulf states competing for influence. Whereas Abu Dhabi has taken the position that the best of many bad options is to fully re-accept Assad as legitimate, Doha’s continued principled stance marks a contrast to this Emirati approach.

Realistically, because of Abu Dhabi’s engagement with Assad and admission of the Syrian regime’s “victory” in the civil war, the UAE will probably have a stronger hand than Qatar inside parts of government-ruled Syria in the near future. However, Qatar will not want to be shut out. Through working with Russia in regime-controlled areas and with Turkey in opposition-controlled zones, Qatar can find ways for its humanitarian assistance to reach all Syrians in need of outside help. This could ultimately allow Doha to keep a significant degree of influence among power players in the north without overly capitulating to the regime, should some degree of northern autonomy exist in a post-war Syria.

For the Doha Process to move forward successfully, the parties will need to show flexibility, particularly in contested areas such as Idlib. This will require confidence-building measures between Russia and the Damascus regime on one side and elements within the Turkish-sponsored opposition on the other, potentially including a degree of autonomy for northwest Syria. Dr. Krieg believes that Doha, Ankara, and Moscow have potential to further collaborate in Syria. However, he cautions that many factors can easily interrupt the Doha Process: “Every time we see some progress being made, we see these opposing views and visions for how Syria should look like in the end. There are strategic disparities between Russia, Turkey, and Qatar—these disparities will always flare up again and we will always see them being an obstacle and impediment to this cooperation. It’s not going to be a smooth process in any shape or form. I don’t want to sound pessimistic because there’s quite something that can happen. But it’s going to be incremental and very slow.”[7]

This complicated game of identifying overlapping areas of interest has defined the difficulty of reaching a political resolution in Syria. Yet, despite Qatar’s principled view that the reasons for expelling Assad’s government from the Arab League in 2011 remain in play, Doha might be moving toward a more pragmatic and flexible stance on the Syrian file that is pleasing to Moscow.

It seems fair to conclude that the events on the ground which shifted the conflict decisively in Assad’s favor—beginning with support of Iranian militias, then Russian military intervention in 2015, and the Syrian regime’s retaking of Aleppo in 2016 and 2017—have prompted the Qataris to quietly move away from a firm maximalist position in favor of toppling the Syrian regime to one that entails the regime making painful concessions. Further, if Russia successfully pressures Turkey into re-accepting Assad’s legitimacy, there would be greater likelihood of Doha softening its stance against Damascus in the months ahead.

 

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Alexander Langlois (@langloisajl) is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He writes for the Diplomatic Courier.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

 

References:

[1] Dr. Gerd Nonneman, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

[2] Dr. Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

[3] Dr. Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

[4] Dr. Gerd Nonneman, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

[5] Dr. Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

[6] Dr. Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

[7] Dr. Andreas Krieg, Interview with authors, April 13, 2021.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego. Alexander Langlois (@langloisajl) is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He writes for the Diplomatic Courier.


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