By Marc DAOU
On Monday July 18, Qatar, one of Syria’s solid allies and economic partners, closed its embassy in Damascus “until further notice”. The Qatari ambassador in Syria, Zaed al-Khayarine, returned to Doha, with no further explanation provided.
Gripped by a massive wave of anti-regime protests since March 15, Syria may just have lost a heavyweight diplomatic ally in the region.
‘More than a fleeting spat’
The diplomatic rift between Syria and Qatar has been simmering as the so-called “Arab spring” spred across the Middle East, with anti-government protest movements rocking countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. But the tension between the two countries is now at its boiling point and may contribute to Syria’s growing isolation on the international stage.
“Qatar’s move looks more like a shrewdly calculated divorce from the Syrian regime than a fleeting spat,” explained Karim Sader, an independent political scientist who specialises in the Gulf nations. According to Sader, Qatar “cynically concluded that it is no longer necessary to support the Syria of Bashar al-Assad, because this Syria no longer has the same strategic influence ever since the recent Arab revolts started shifting the power dynamics in the region”.
Already weakened by internal political conflict as well as pressure from the international community in the wake of the Syrian regime’s violent repression of protests, Syria has seen its influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict decline. Since the reconciliation in late April between Hamas – which Qatar supports financially – and Fatah, Syria’s input on the matter has been less frequently solicited. “The reopening of the Rafah border crossing following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also loosened the stranglehold on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip,” Sader said. “That development, combined with the reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions, makes it so that Qatar can now do without the Syrian go-between when dealing with Palestinians.”
Al-Jazeera, a source of Syrian-Qatari discord
The shift in Qatari-Syrian relations has roots in the Arab revolts in which Qatar played a role through the decisive influence of the Qatari-owned news channel Al-Jazeera. “The channel displayed a clear support for the revolutionary movements from the very start of the protests in Tunisia”, explained Claire-Gabrielle Talon, a French political scientist and author of a book on Al-Jazeera, in an interview with weekly news magazine Jeune Afrique. “The channel broadcast images of the revolutions, accompanied by music, and it looked almost like an advertising campaign.” Talon said that until the Arab revolutions of this year, Al-Jazeera had broadcast those types of montages almost exclusively to show Palestinian resistance efforts.
Last week, supporters of Bashar al-Assad stormed the Qatari embassy in Damascus to protest against Al-Jazeera’s “exaggerated and dishonest” coverage of the events in Syria. The incident was an indication that Syrian authorities feel threatened by the channel, which is credited with providing momentum to the uprising against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and especially to the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
Playing the Sunni card
According to Karim Sader, Qatar seems to be playing “the Sunni card” by cozying up to Saudi Arabia – which would explain why Al-Jazeera has been covering Syria more extensively, compared to its past silence when it came to Syrian repression. “Qatar decided to make overtures toward its ally and fellow Sunni bastion Saudi Arabia…by adjusting its coverage of Syria, which is the main Arab ally of Shia-dominated Iran.”
Sader explained that “the rift with Qatar amounts to a colossal diplomatic loss for Bashar al-Assad, who is losing an ally that made him more palatable” to other nations. Indeed, Qatar had worked significantly toward the improvement of Syria’s image on the international stage in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which was attributed to Syrian authorities by Hariri’s entourage.
“It’s thanks to Qatar that France, under Nicolas Sarkozy, renewed relations with Damascus,” Sader concluded. “It’s also Qatar that rallied for President Assad to be invited to the July 14 parade [in honour of Bastille Day] in 2008.”