years of gruesome war, the Syrian people’s revolution has been replaced by a
civil war with massive geopolitical implications. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar emerged
as the anti-regime forces’ most inspired backers, committing millions of
dollars to rebel groups in a futile aim at securing influence in a post-Assad
Syria. As President Assad, with the help of his patrons in Moscow and Tehran,
has gradually solidified his control over Syrian territory, the countries that
strove to initiate his demise have been forced to rethink their strategies,
leading to bizarre, and at times uncomfortable, partnerships.
Ankara have all but abandoned their calls for a political settlement
in Syria excluding President Bashar al-Assad. By backtracking on an earlier and more aggressive stance, Turkey guaranteed its representatives
a spot at the negotiating table with those that currently carry the most
weight in determining Syria’s future – Russia and Iran. While Turkey remains
active in northwest Syria through its support for armed groups, its operations
are framed in terms of national security and border protection rather than an
attempt to dislodge or weaken Assad’s regime. Turkey has clearly modified its
approach to the Syrian war in hopes of retaining influence, albeit diminished,
among the region’s most powerful players.
has made changes to its foreign policy in Syria. Having been widely identified
as one of the most prominent supporters of violent Islamist groups in the
country, Doha has relied on its clear strategic advantage – its state coffers –
in an attempt to repair its image and regain regional influence. In this new
approach, Qatar has pointed to the Assad regime’s most powerful supporters in
Moscow as the recipients of billions of dollars of Qatari investments, a move
that many see as a sign that the U.S. ally is drifting towards Russia and away
from the U.S. as the balance of power changes in the Middle East.
Turkey’s change in rhetoric over the future of President al-Assad appears to
have been welcomed by Russia and Iran as the prerequisite for Turkish
involvement in negotiations over Syria, Qatar has steered clear of making any
similar announcements. Instead, Qatar has doubled-down on its rhetorical support for the rebels, even amid talk that
the U.S. would abandon its rebel backing under President Trump. Qatar’s
continued support for Islamist rebels that Russia is fighting in Syria and its
history of supporting Chechen terrorists make Doha’s ongoing attempts at
rapprochement with Moscow all the more challenging and awkward.
Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), has moved
swiftly in making major investments in Russia. Among the most eye-catching
moves is a $500 million QIA investment in the U.S.-sanctioned VTB Bank, the
Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), and QIA’s purchase of a 25 percent stake in the St. Petersburg Pulkovo airport.
QIA topped off its investments in Russia in January of this year by finalizing an $11.3 billion
Russia’s Rosneft with commodity trading company Glencore. QIA and the UK-based
Glencore now own the equivalent of one-fifth of the Russian oil giant’s
cash-strapped Russia has welcomed Qatar’s petrodollars, the small Gulf country
still faces several challenges if it expects its billion dollar investments to translate
into leverage over Russian foreign policy. Not only is Qatar a major financier of the groups fighting most
effectively against Putin’s partners in Damascus, a cause the Qataris have
chosen not to abandon, but the two countries also share lingering historic
Moscow has suspected Doha of supporting Chechen al-Qaeda
jihadists in the southeastern Russian federal area of Dagestan in their fight
against Russian forces, a claim made by the Russian Interior
Minister as early
as 1999. During the same year, Dagestani police identified that the Qatar Charitable Society
(QCS) – later rebranded as Qatar Charity – funneled up to $1 million to Chechen
terrorists in support for an attack against Russia forces in Dagestan, a
federal republic of Russia bordering Chechnya.
later, in 2004, Qatari-Russian relations soured again when Doha charged Russia agents Anatoly Yablochkov and Vasily Pugachyov with the
assassination of Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha. The
Russian spies were handed life sentences by a Doha court whose judge claimed
the men had acted on orders from the Russian
Syrian-based anti-regime groups, many of which adhere to an extremist Islamic
interpretation, seem to have replaced Chechen rebels as the Kremlin’s most
immediate adversary. Their battle-proven foot soldiers pose a serious danger to the Russian forces on the ground in Syria unfamiliar with the local terrain.
Moscow likely views Qatar’s support for Syrian rebels, much of which is also funneled through charities, much like how it viewed Qatar’s
support for Chechen rebels – dangerous to Russian interests and soldiers.
Doha is, of
course, aware of the tensions associated with its relationship with the
Kremlin. Rather than an attempt to forge warm relations with Moscow, Qatar’s
recent billion dollar commitments represent an effort to maintain practical
relations with, and perhaps some leverage over, the world’s major players on
all geopolitical sides.
pledged to invest billions more in the U.S., including in its politically urgent infrastructure
sector, Qatar is
not backing away from its relationship with Washington D.C. Instead, Tamim al
Thani, having watched his geopolitical bet in Syria fail, is hoping to strike a
delicate balance in Doha’s relations with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.,
relying on its state coffers to provide the investment that foreign governments
seek. Whether or not Qatar’s petrodollars can overpower the historic and
ongoing tensions in its relationship with Moscow will not only determine
Qatar-Russian relations, but will also have an unmistakable impact on the
future of Syria and the greater Middle East.