Qatar may find itself isolated on Syria normalisation – Middle East Monitor

In recent months, the Middle East has witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activity including a push by some countries in the region to normalise relations with Syria. Several Arab states have sought to bring the war-torn country back into the fold, with the hope of healing the wounds of the past and restoring regional stability.

While some Arab states have welcomed the idea of normalising relations with Damascus, Qatar has persistently opposed it. As the momentum towards Syria’s eventual return to the Arab League gathers pace, Doha’s stubborn resistance could leave it isolated on this issue. For many years, Syria was a pariah state in the Arab world, shunned by its neighbours and ostracised by the international community. The country’s descent into chaos and violence in the wake of the Arab Spring only served to deepen its isolation, as the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on dissent drew international condemnation.

However, in recent years, the tide has begun to turn, with a growing number of Arab countries seeking to rebuild ties with Damascus. The UAE was one of the earliest to do so and, more recently, Saudi Arabia has announced plans to resume consular services and direct flights with the country. It is worth noting that Algeria was exceptional in having maintained ties with Syria throughout the conflict and has reiterated calls for Syria’s readmission to the Arab League.

The reasons for this policy shift are manifold. For some Arab states, the desire to restore stability to the region is the driving force behind their efforts to normalise relations with the Syrian government. The war in Syria has had a destabilising effect on the region, fuelling sectarian tensions, spawning extremist groups, and triggering a massive refugee crisis. Restoring relations with Syria is seen as a crucial step towards resolving these issues and bringing stability back to the region.

For others, the desire to counter Iranian influence in the region is the primary motivation behind their efforts to normalise relations with Syria. Tehran has been a key backer of President Bashar Al-Assad throughout the war, providing military and financial support to his government. For many pro-Western, Sunni Arab states, this has been seen as a direct threat to their own security and stability. By resuming diplomatic relations with Syria, they hope to weaken Iran’s influence in the region and restore a balance of power.

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Against this backdrop, the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar has emerged as one of the most vocal opponents of normalising relations with Syria. Doha has long been a key player in regional politics, using its vast wealth and influence to advance its interests and pursue its own agenda; this has even led to conflict with its own Gulf Arab neighbours and isolation — a diplomatic stand-off which was only formally settled in 2021, with Bahrain agreeing to restore diplomatic ties as recently as last month.

In the early years of the Syrian crisis, Qatar positioned itself as a champion of the armed Syrian opposition, providing military and financial support to Islamist groups fighting to overthrow the Syrian government. Qatar’s opposition to normalising relations with Syria is rooted in its long-standing support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, including those associated with the Syrian opposition.

The Qataris believe that restoring ties with Damascus would send the wrong message to the Syrian people and legitimise the Syrian government’s efforts to reclaim opposition-held territory by force. However, Qatar’s opposition to normalising relations with Syria has left it increasingly isolated in the Arab world, as more states make reconciliatory gestures to rehabilitate the Assad government.

Other countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, have also signalled their willingness to normalise relations with Syria in the near future. This growing momentum towards Syria’s eventual return to the Arab League puts Qatar in a difficult position. It was already awkward for the Qataris, who prior to hosting the FIFA World Cup, hosted the 2021 Arab Cup. The tournament included the participation of the Syrian Arab Republic, whose flag and national anthem was represented at their games.

As more and more Arab countries seek to rebuild ties with Syria, Qatar risks being left behind, isolated on an issue that is becoming increasingly important for the region as a whole. Moreover, Qatar’s opposition to normalising relations with Syria is at odds with its own strategic interests. By opposing these efforts, Qatar risks alienating itself from the region’s key regional players, especially following Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, which lessens the prospects of continued, polarising proxy wars.

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Furthermore, Qatar’s support for the Syrian opposition has failed to achieve its desired outcome of revolution. Despite years of support, the opposition has failed to overthrow the Syrian government. Instead, the conflict has dragged on, leaving the opposition hanging on to shrinking territory and international support. By continuing to back the opposition, Qatar risks prolonging the conflict and further destabilising the region. In light of these realities, it is becoming increasingly clear that Qatar’s opposition to normalising relations with Syria is unsustainable.

Although Qatar’s staunch opposition is shared with the likes of Kuwait, Morocco and the internationally-recognised government of Yemen, of these, it is Qatar that wields the most influence and soft power. Furthermore, the de-facto, Houthi-led government of Yemen, which has diplomatic relations with Damascus, is likely to gain greater recognition amid on-going peace talks with Saudi Arabia.

According to geopolitical analyst, Giorgio Cafiero, as Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian pressure to normalise with Syria increases, Doha will need to take into account “the risks of continued defiance”. Qatar may also face pressure from Iran and Turkiye – two regional hegemons that supported Qatar during the Saudi-led blockade. The latter, which is participating in its own rapprochement talks with Syria, “likely has the most potential to convince Qatar that the time has come to accept Assad’s political survival”.

Despite these developments, recent reports indicate that Qatar is looking to “double down” on its anti-Assad stance, going as far as to rebrand and unify the fractured Syrian opposition factions under a new umbrella.

Nevertheless, the momentum towards Syria’s eventual return to the Arab League is growing. Ahead of this month’s Arab Summit hosted in Saudi Arabia, the Arab League’s Secretary-General, Aboul Gheit, said yesterday that Syria’s return to the organisation is possible. Earlier reports also suggest that President Assad will be invited to attend by the Saudis, further signalling the end of Syria’s regional isolation.

It is time for Qatar to reassess its stance on Syria and recognise that its continued opposition to normalising relations is not in its own interests or those of the region, as a whole. Restoring ties with Syria is an important step towards resolving the unresolved conflict in the country and restoring stability to the wider region. Failure to do so will ironically leave Qatar in an isolated position.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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