Syrian Opposition Wary of Qatar Crisis Fallouts
Since the outbreak of the Qatari-Saudi feud in mid-May, the Syrian opposition has been remarkably silent, refusing to take sides between two of their staunchest allies. This applies to civilian politicians and military commanders of the armed groups who have been recipients of Saudi and Qatari funds for more than six years.
Qatar put forth an estimated $3 billion to bankroll the opposition in its early stages while there is no figure for the Saudis, who severed relations with Damascus in August 2011 and formally adopted the Syrian opposition in the spring of 2013.
Most Syrian politicians are anxiously waiting to see how this crisis unfolds and whether Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani will surrender to Saudi dictates, a move that would effectively strip his country of all its political tools and influence.
Among other things, this would mean distancing itself from Iran and expelling from Doha the Muslim Brotherhood, including its 90-year-old chief ideologue Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who has been residing in the tiny emirate since 1961. He has been vocally supportive of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a Doha-created political entity set up by the current emir’s father in November 2012.
Saudi Arabia is also expecting Qatar to sever ties with the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, Hamas, and to permanently terminate the popular Al Jazeera television network, which has been a powerful mouthpiece for the Syrian opposition. If closed, it would leave one popular television platform, the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV. Unless they take sides early on, many Syrians would be denied access to the studios of Al Arabiya.
So far, however, no pressure has been applied on Syrian dissidents to take sides with either Saudi Arabia or Qatar. That could change soon, spreading fear in opposition circles.
For example, Riad Hijab, the defected former prime minister who now heads the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), lives in Doha but conducts all his meetings in Riyadh. This will become technically difficult as all flights to and from Qatar have been terminated by Saudi Arabia and all land and sea borders have been closed.
Another prominent Syrian figure who resides in Doha and has been remarkably silent is Mustapha al-Sabbagh, the former secretary-general of the Syrian National Coalition, who is also on excellent terms with the Saudis. In 2013, the former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani handed the Syrian Embassy premises in Doha to the Syrian coalition and gave it Syria’s seat during the Arab League summit in March in Qatar.
With the notable exception of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whose top leadership will stand by Qatar until the curtain falls, other figures are likely to slowly distance themselves and quietly shift into the Saudi orbit. This is where the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council stands, after all, and where cash flow and arms will likely continue.
That, of course, is only if Qatar itself does not throw itself completely into the lap of Iran — the one regional heavyweight milking this crisis to death.
Qatar has shown no readiness to climb down, with Sheikh Tamim recently receiving Qaradawi after iftar and refusing to attend a reconciliation meeting with Saudi Arabia proposed in Washington by US President Donald Trump.
The Qataris are saying that they can weather the blockade imposed on their land and sea borders by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, leaving them with one access route — Iran.
Saudi media estimated that, if the blockade continues, Qatar will lose no less than 80% of its Gulf imports but Tehran has offered to cover the loss and provide food and whatever else Qatar may need in the upcoming period. The two countries have always had a warm relationship, despite differences on Syria since 2011.
Shortly after the current crisis erupted, Sheikh Tamim called Iranian President Hassan Rohani, congratulating him on his re-election, indicating again that he was unwilling to kneel to Saudi dictates.
The closer he draws to Iran the more difficult it will make life for Qatari-based Syrian activists — who would further damage their credibility at home if they are perceived as even remotely close or uncritical of Iran. If relations get warmer with Tehran, and possibly Damascus as well, they also run the high risk of being expelled. In the complex world of Arab politics, anything can happen.
Another possible outcome of the Gulf feud is if Doha and Riyadh decide to settle old scores on the Syrian battlefield, away from the Arabian Gulf. This could be fatal for the Syrian opposition if money and arms start pouring into Syria not to fight government troops but, rather, to tear their proxies to pieces at the gates of Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.
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