Qatar, despite its small size and population, is becoming an increasingly important regional and diplomatic force in the Middle East and North Africa.
While the Arab League’s chief, Nabil al-Arabi, voiced pessimism about the lack of incentives for powers to intervene in oil-poor Syria, the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, suggested that Arab troops should be sent to the conflict-stricken country to end the violence being perpetrated against protesters and dissidents.
“For such a situation to stop the killing ... some troops should go to stop the killing,” al-Thani said in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
The Qatari emir’s statement is considered to be a groundbreaking one, especially since it came from the ruler of an Arab nation. The Arab League has complacently depended on the role of its observers dispatched to Syria to monitor the Assad regime’s compliance with the League’s peace agreement. The League’s peace plan, which includes the cessation of violence in the country, has produced no results and is widely viewed as lacking credibility.
The violence has continued in the country even with the presence of monitors from the Arab League, which should be seen as a sign of failure. So far, more than 5,400 people, including children and bystanders, have been killed since the beginning of the uprising, in March, according to U.N. estimates.
“Qatar feels that it needs to further its commitment to protect Syrian civilians and their aspirations,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“The call for troops in Syria is an expansion of Qatar’s commitment, thereby sending a clear signal for Arab and Western powers that we need to think outside the box to try to stabilize the Syrian situation,” Shaikh added.
The Qatari plan has also influenced a former secretary-general of the Arab League, Amro Mousa; he recently urged Arabs to seriously consider the emir’s proposal.
But gas-rich Qatar’s outspokenness and growing influence has its fair share of critics.
After defeating the Qaddafi regime with Qatari and NATO support, some Libyan rebels turned against their Gulf benefactors, saying that they helped Islamists and are only interested in pushing their Qatari agendas.
“It is too early to describe the Qatari influence in an ideological way,” Shaikh said.
“Qatar for the last two, three decades has worked to give a voice to dissidents and opposition who did not have a place in their respective countries, and that included the Islamists.”
Shaikh said that Qatar has a vision to develop and modernize the region, which in turn is also in its own best interest.
Qatar had a crucial role in the early days of the Libyan revolution, and spearheaded the Arab League’s effort to urge the U.N. to establish a no-fly zone. It also helped the Libyan rebels logistically and financially and provided them with Chevrolet SUVs, walkie-talkies, weapons such as antitank missiles. Libyan rebels even received military training in Doha.
Syria like Libya?
The Dubai-based defense analyst Musa al-Qallab, who described the number of Arab observers sent to Syria as insufficient and inadequate, said that the Qatari proposal is not at all similar to the country’s involvement in Libya.
If there will be any Qatari or Arab troops in Syria, the scenario will be similar to cases in which Arab troops were sent to drive invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait or attempted to stabilize the situation in civil war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s, al-Qallab said.
Qatar hosts one of the largest American air bases in the Gulf and was involved in being a peace broker before the start of the Arab Spring; examples include its diplomatic efforts in Lebanon and Sudan. Its growing diplomatic clout was also seen when it agreed to allow a political office for the Taliban to be located in Doha, a move seen as precursor to peace talks between the group and the United States.
Qatar’s strength in its alliances
Qatar’s relations with the U.S. and other Western powers make it a “diplomatic power,” said al-Qallab, who also described the Gulf state’s Syrian initiative as groundbreaking, since no other Arab state has suggested such a proposal.
“There are clearly Arab sides that are quiet, and there are others that, even if they speak, no one will listen to them,” he said, indicating that Qatar’s diplomatic prowess makes it a heard voice. Asked to list the countries that won’t be listened to, he declined to name them.
According to Shaikh, Qatar has worked to build sound relations with different factions and players, no matter their agenda or stance.
Hassan Al Ansari, the director of the Gulf Studies Center at the University of Qatar, rebuffed the criticism of Qatar having a menacing agenda, and said it is in Qatar’s interest to help foster and maintain a prosperous, progressive and peaceful region.
Al-Ansari said that Qatar is an active country when it comes to peace-making initiatives. But Qallab goes even further; he says the country has emerged as a regional power.
War between two camps?
Qatar has only a modest military force, about 11,800 men, barely enough to protect its national security on its own, but there were reports that it sent a number of active troops to Libya.
“Qatar cannot send its troops to Syria, as its forces are very small in number and tailored mainly to protect its national security,” Qallab said, adding: “Qatar’s diplomatic role maybe is bigger than its geographic and human resources, and there is nothing wrong with that.”
But Lieutenant Tala’t Musalam, an Egypt-based military expert, represents the voice of critics against the cash-rich Gulf nation.
Musalam said that the country, as opposed to working to push for reconciliation between Syria’s warring parties, urges Arab troops to be dispatched to Syria.
The lieutenant said that Qatar, a U.S. and a European ally, tries to steer events in the region towards its interest, and in the case of Syria especially since Damascus and Tehran are on friendly terms. Any friend of Iran’s is an enemy of Qatar’s.
“Going to Syria is an adventure, and it is like pouring fuel on fire” in the war against Iran, he said.
In addition to Iran, Syria is supported by Russia. In October of 2011, Russia and China vetoed a European resolution on Syria calling for regime change in Syria.
Instead, Russia in December proposed its own resolution, but Britain, France, Germany and the United States said the plan is not acceptable because it puts opposition violence on the same level as the government’s actions against protesters.
According to Shaikh, in order to prevent a full-fledged conflict between the Syrian regime and its allies, and the Western powers, a U.N. resolution is needed.
“It needs a broader coalition that is Arab-led and with an international U.N. mandate,” he said, warning that “a new coalition of the willing will lead to a broader conflict; there needs to be a sensible U.N. resolution.”
Syria has rejected the Qatari emir’s calls for sending Arab troops to the country, saying such action would only worsen the situation, undermine the Arab peace efforts and open the door for foreign interference.
Meanwhile, Turkey, which is currently giving a safe haven for defected Syria soldiers and is increasingly looking eastward instead of westward has re-emerged as an important political player in the region. Indeed, it recently sent its foreign minister to Qatar to discuss Egypt and other regional developments, a sign that the Gulf state has assumed a pivotal political and diplomatic role.