Qatar’s risky balancing act

Qatar has been plagued by accusations that of all the forces backing Syrian insurgents it is the most responsible for funding finding its way to the Islamic State.

Qatar has consistently faced accusations that, of all the forces backing Syrian insurgents, it is the most responsible for funding the Islamic State. Doha has consistently denied these allegations. Although Qatar is open about its support for the Syrian opposition, it rejects allegations linking it to extremist groups and it claims to be taking measures to promote stability in the region.

Qatar is in an awkward position: it does not face the same internal security threat from IS that other regional actors do. Therefore, it has been perceived, even by some of its allies, as somehow more reckless and more to blame for the creation of IS. Indeed, the immediate risk to Qatar is low. It is a small state distant from Syria and Iraq, and it is easy for its security services to monitor any IS movements into its territory. Additionally, there is no significant domestic dissent on which jihadi radicals can build. Although, as in Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s religious scholars follow an Islamic school of law in which Salafi jihadism has its roots, the country has used political Islam to temper conservatism and potential puritan zealotry. Qatar views its good links with Islamist groups across the region as affording it a form of protection from the ire of more radical Islamic organisations, in spite of sharp differences in ideology.

The accusations against Qatar from its neighbours and allies in Europe and the United States, however, represent a threat to its global standing and to the brand it has carefully cultivated over the past decade. The country already faces international pressure as a result of bribery allegations regarding its hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup and its treatment of the migrant labour hired to build stadiums and infrastructure for the competition. A loss of prestige over IS could further damage international perceptions of the country and its 2022 plans. That, in turn, could threaten the ruling circle’s hold on power. Therefore, the stakes are high.

Qatar is not the only Gulf state that has actively backed the armed Syrian uprising. In general, Saudi funding focused on Salafi groups and Qatari support was focused on Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups (and on organising the Syrian National Coalition out of Doha), but there has been a degree of overlap. Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) is one key Salafi group that is widely considered to have received money and arms via informal and popular funding in Qatar (through charities and other non-governmentally organised support).

JAN links itself to the al-Qaeda network. Qatar’s rulers did not seem to mind that money, including some allegedly from government sources, was going across their borders to the group. Qatar’s pan-Arab TV channel, Al Jazeera, has run reports touring rebel zones with the JAN, an indication of the close relations between Qatar and the group. Kuwaiti arms buyers for the opposition, including those who work for JAN, have openly solicited financial support from Qatar’s rulers. Hajaj al-Ajmi, identified by the US government as a JAN fundraiser, has been an occasional visitor to Doha to lobby for cash.

By late 2012, Western diplomats were complaining of Qatari recklessness in its support for the insurgents and its lack of control over where the arms bought with its money were going. In a speech in March 2014, US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen described Kuwait and Qatar as having “permissive jurisdictions” for terror financing, suggesting that IS had received unofficial donations from both countries. Given Doha’s ongoing support for the Palestinian group Hamas, which like JAN, is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, there have been some calls in the US Congress for punitive US sanctions. The country has since come under growing pressure to pay more attention to its funding, and Britain, France, and the US have started to request monthly submissions regarding the nature of Doha’s support to opposition groups.

Partly as a result of this irritation among Western governments, Doha gave up its role as the main organiser of the Syrian opposition abroad, giving way to a Saudi-backed head of the Syrian National Coalition. In part, this was also due to the Qatari leadership’s preoccupation with the handover of power from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa to his son Tamim in June 2013. Kuwaiti campaigners for JAN began to complain that Qatar was putting the squeeze on them. This year Qatar told other groups to which it has links, such as Ahrar al-Sham, that they must cut ties with JAN. In May 2014, Doha pushed these groups to sign the front’s so-called Revolutionary Charter which Washington wanted as part of a bid to draw clear lines between “moderate” and “extremist” Islamist fighters.

Meanwhile, the role of former Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan in allegedly supporting some radical Islamic groups in Syria also helped to divert some attention away from Qatar’s role in allowing extremist groups to become so dominant on the ground. Doha and Riyadh have each been engaged in a low-level game of blaming the other for jihadi extremism in Syria, as well as competing to demonstrate their commitment to fighting IS. After the beheading of Westerners began in August last year with US photojournalist James Foley, pressure mounted to show that they were on the same page as Washington in combatting what it defined as a new regional and global menace, with echoes of the “war on terror” climate after 9/11.

In the face of a gathering storm of criticism, Doha moved quickly to activate its connections with insurgents in Syria to secure the release of hostages, affirming to Washington that it takes the IS threat seriously and is prepared to prove itself as an ally with key connections among Islamists. Days after Foley’s death, Qatar managed to secure the release of another US journalist held by JAN, with some reports of a ransom payment, and was reported to be cooperating with US President Barack Obama’s administration to secure the release of more hostages. In September 2014 Doha also helped secure the release of 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers kidnapped by JAN.

Qatar is now attempting to position itself as a critical mediator in response to the IS crisis, much as it has successfully done over the past decade in a number of regional conflicts. This Qatari stance can be seen as a direct response to the accusations that have been thrown Doha’s way – accusations that began to merge with the animosity that many regional players harbour towards Doha because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other political Islamic groups.

The intensity of the US effort to rally an international coalition in the fight against IS may now be buying Qatar some breathing space. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from the country earlier last year in protest against its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood, and there was speculation that they would suspend Qatar’s membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to raise the pressure further. But a GCC meeting in Jeddah in August 2014 decided to put off indefinitely an evaluation of Doha’s response to their long list of demands, and in November a deal was reached to return the three ambassadors. Meanwhile, Doha also participated in September 2014 in summit in Jeddah, committing alongside Saudi Arabia to the international campaign against IS.

Qatar’s role in the US strikes against IS was telling: the UAE and Saudi Arabia wanted to be seen at the forefront, publicly proclaiming their involvement as if it was an extension of their war on the Brotherhood. Qatar was on board – Gulf states really had no choice in the face of America’s labelling of the group as a new threat to global security – but played the smallest of parts, providing Mirage jets in an escort role. There was no official confirmation of Qatari involvement, while Al Jazeera reported heavily on civilian casualties and deployed the same populist anti-Western discourse critical of US attacks on Sunni Muslims that it has followed since its inception. Thus, Qatar has, typically, been keen to play to both sides.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Policy Fellow

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