President Obama has been hosting a series of visitors from the Middle East, and all of them have been urging the U.S. to get more involved in Syria.
They have included the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose country has been arming rebel forces in Syria. Obama wants to see such aid go to moderates — but that requires more cooperation with partners like Qatar. Problem is, they don’t always see eye to eye.
Qatar was already an important U.S. partner in the region when the Arab uprisings began, and the small, wealthy Gulf nation saw a new opportunity to gain influence when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, says Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“One of the consequences in the fall of Mubarak is that the U.S. lost in a way its central diplomatic partner in the Arab world,” Wittes says. “In many ways, the Qataris stepped up to play that role, in the Arab League, for example, on Libya and then on Syria.”
Impression Of Qatar ‘Taking Sides’
This was a time when the U.S. wanted others to take the lead. But there were risks in that approach, says Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the center’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program.
“We stood to one side and let things happen in Libya, and the result was that most of the fighting was done by jihadis who are very much in influence now,” he says. “In Syria we are standing further to one side and the problem with jihadis persists.”
Henderson believes that’s because Gulf states like Qatar are taking the lead in arming Syrian rebels. He says Qatar is competing with Saudi Arabia for influence in Syria’s future, and they are backing different extremist groups.
“Qatar is punching above its weight at the moment and is prepared to have a pretty open competition in Syria,” Henderson says. “This is a battle, a contest, in which they are using both diplomatic influence and … military support, for the opposition.”
Qatar has also been pouring money into Egypt, to help the Muslim Brotherhood government avoid a financial collapse. At a dinner hosted by the Brookings Institution, Martin Indyk, the group’s vice president and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, asked Qatar’s prime minister why his government seems to be supporting Islamists throughout the region.
“Whether it’s your bailing out the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt or your support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria or Hamas in Gaza, there’s an impression that you’re taking sides,” Indyk said.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani called it a rumor spread by his rivals in the region. He said Qatar has been on the side of the people in the Arab uprisings. And on Syria, the prime minister said Qatar didn’t seek the limelight.
“We did not want to take the lead. We begged a lot of countries to take the lead and we will be in the back seat, but we find ourselves in the front seat,” he said.
U.S. Urged To Do More
The Qatari prime minister also said Syrian President Bashar Assad is testing the international community and crossing red lines, starting with Scud missile attacks on his people.
“You know we put a lot of red lines. Scud, he used Scud. Chemicals, he used chemicals. And there is evidence,” Thani said. “But he used it in pockets, small pockets. He wants to try your reaction. No reaction? He will escalate.”
And the longer the conflict in Syria drags on, the Qatari prime minister warned, the more the extremists will gain ground.
“The United States has to do more,” he said. “I believe that if we stopped this one year ago, we will not see the bad people you are talking about.”
But while Qatar is asking the Obama administration to do more, Wittes of the Brookings Institution says the White House had its own concerns to raise about various funding streams for the Syrian opposition.
“There seems to be a tendency by different actors to back different factions on the ground in a way that exacerbates conflict between the elements of the Syrian opposition, when what the U.S. is very focused on now is to bring that opposition together,” she says.
That’s the only way, Wittes says, opponents of the Syrian government can show there is a real alternative to Assad.