Analysis-Qatar takes diplomatic back seat as Saudi flexes political muscle
DOHA (Reuters) – The fact that the Arab League has welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into its ranks highlights how far behind Qatar has fallen in its bid to be a diplomatic voice that has weight in the Middle East.
Earlier this month Qatar reluctantly withdrew its opposition to Saudi Arabia’s initiative to re-enter Syria. He made it clear that he opposed normalizing its own ties with Damascus but said it would not stand in the way of an Arab consensus.
The upset at the diplomatic mission in Doha of a Syrian opposition group, which Qatar recognizes as Syria’s official embassy to the state, was a stark reminder of the changing tides.
“Qatar did not accept this decision, but they did not stand in the way,” Belal Tourkya, the mission’s charge d’affaires, told Reuters.
Analysts said the shift in Doha’s stance on Syria is a sign it may be changing its once-ambitious regional foreign policy to avoid provoking the ire of its more powerful neighbours.
Assad is expected to attend the Arab League summit in Jeddah on Friday for the first time in 12 years, a strong sign that his regional isolation over Syria’s civil war is ending.
Saudi Arabia used its leverage over Arab League members to push them to return Syria to the body, said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
“Qatar did not want to play an obstructive role that would risk angering the leadership in Riyadh and other Arab capitals,” he said.
Qatar has been steadily improving ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
In early 2021 they agreed to end a 3-1/2-year boycott of Qatar imposed on accusations that Doha supported terrorism – a broad allusion to Islamist movements. Qatar denies the charges.
Qatar’s support of pro-democracy movements and rebels in Syria and elsewhere such as Egypt and Libya after the 2011 Arab Spring angered its neighbours.
Fueled by gas wealth, it has played a major role in global affairs.
It hosts American troops, finances the influential Al Jazeera news network, and mediates conflicts. Last year’s soccer World Cup was seen as a showcase of soft diplomacy.
But in recent weeks, Qatar has had little say in the peace talks between Yemen’s Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia, or in the search for an end to the fighting between the rival military factions in -Sudan.
The Gulf state is prioritizing a good working relationship with its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, said a Western diplomat in Doha who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This makes them eager to avoid getting involved in regional confrontations and that is why they are less engaged in Yemen and Sudan than in previous times,” said the diplomat.
Qatar says its foreign policy is “fully independent” and strives “to build consensus in the (Gulf) and the wider Arab region through constructive dialogue that does not compromise our foreign policy,” a Qatari official told Reuters.
“For this reason, Qatar decided not to block the readmission of Syria to the Arab League but not to normalize relations with the Syrian regime,” said the official.
CHANGE STOCKING REGIME
When Qatar authorized the opposition embassy in 2013, Doha was the main architect of a growing Arab consensus that isolated Assad and bolstered support for his enemies.
Doha and Washington have worked together to try to organize an international effort against Assad and to develop an alternative to him, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Qatar cast the Syrian National Coalition as a government-in-exile, giving them the seat of the Syrian Arab League and opening the Doha mission in a villa near other embassies.
Al Jazeera beat “the drums of regime change” by broadcasting a stream of footage of Assad’s security forces attacking protesters, Landis said.
Several Gulf states including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have begun to support rebel groups fighting to oust Assad from power.
“Qatar assumed that the civil war would result in the overthrow of the Assad dynasty, which it did not,” said Mehran Kamrava, Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar.
Assad has regained control over much of Syria with the help of Iran and Russia but hundreds of thousands of people have died in the war, millions have fled the country and Syria is still in tatters with its economy in ruin.
As the Syrian movement against Assad lost, “Saudi Arabia and the UAE changed their policies most dramatically but Qatar did not,” Kamrava said.
Qatar initially opposed efforts this spring by Saudi Arabia to raise support for Syria’s readmission to the Arab League after its 2011 suspension.
“They still see Assad as a war criminal and his place should be in the courts,” Tourkya said.
But three weeks later, Qatar went along with the League’s decision to re-enter Syria. The ministry for foreign affairs said that it did not want to be an obstacle to the Arab consensus.
Qatar has made it clear that it will not restore relations with the Assad government, a step it says is linked to progress towards a political solution.
But analysts question how long Doha can maintain that position.
Qatar “understands well that they have lost, but it must be the last country to normalize with Syria,” Landis said.
(Reporting by Andrew Mills; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and Angus MacSwan)
By Andrew Mills