CATF Reports Mar. 17, 2017, 12:34pm


Through six years of gruesome war, the Syrian people’s revolution has been replaced by a civil war with massive geopolitical implications.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.

Leaders in 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.

Qatar, too, 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.

While 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.

Since 2013, 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 investment in 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 privatization portfolio.

While 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 animosities.

For years, 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.

Years 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 leadership.

Today, 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.

Having 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.

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