The Qatar Conundrum: The Emirate That Arms Syria’s Rebels Also Embraces Hamas

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Wissam Nassar / AFP / Getty Images

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (C) holds hands with Hamas' Prime Minister Ismail Haniya (R) during the Emir's tour of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Oct. 23, 2012.

Even as it embraces Hamas, Qatar remains one of that rare species of Arab states that openly maintains relations with Israel. It also hosts the forward operating headquarters of CENTCOM, the U.S. military command that covers the Middle East.┬áBut the Emirate is not simply trying to hedge its bets; its interventions in support of the Arab rebellions of the past two years reflect a clear-eyed strategy of boosting its own influence via mainstream Islamist political forces, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (of which Hamas is essentially the progeny). Qatar’s influence grows not only at the expense of Western-backed secularists, but also of the extremist salafi current, most of whose external support allegedly comes from Saudi Arabia — and, most importantly in the Gaza instance, at the expense of influence by Iran.

Qatar may be on cordial terms with Iran, but the two nations are strategic competitors — not least because they share the South Pars natural gas field which is the world’s largest. Qatar aligns itself with a moderate Sunni Islamist politics exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood, which serves as a de facto bulwark against Iranian influence in Arab countries. Iran’s influence had grown during the Bush Administration era, when dictators such as Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak were perceived by their public as supine in the face of the invasion of Iraq, and U.S. backing for Israel’s wars in Gaza and Lebanon. But the Arab rebellions that swept away Mubarak and challenged other U.S.-aligned strongmen was bad news for Iran, precisely because it offered an indigenous alternative that both expressed democratic aspirations, and challenged U.S. policy in the region. Hamas had been something of an exception for a Muslim Brotherhood organization, having found itself largely dependent on Iran and Syria after the siege of Gaza took effect in 2007. Qatar’s mission, in part, has been to woo Hamas back into the Arab fold and wean it off support from Tehran — the Emir’s Gaza visit was widely interpreted as in part a reward for Hamas breaking ties with the Assad regime in Syria last, its former host, a move that angered Iran.

(MORE: Hamas Signals Break with Iran, But Is That Good for Israel?)

Although the Arab rebellion weakened the Iran-Syria “resistance camp” to which Hamas had been aligned, it also brought Hamas’ parent organization, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to power in Cairo, as well as empowering like-minded mainstream Islamist parties across the region. Turkey’s moderate Islamist AK Party rulers have also assiduously courted Hamas over the past four years — the organization’s leader, Khaled Meshal, was welcomed with rock-star adulation when he attended the AKP’s annual convention last month.

And, of course, Qatar has been at the forefront of promoting the Arab rebellion, through deploying soft-power and hard: Its international TV news station, al-Jazeera, covered the uprisings (except, perhaps, for Bahrain’s) with a courage and enthusiasm that helped turned protests that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 into a region-wide seismic political event.

When Libya’s rebellion turned violent, Qatar took the lead in winning Arab League support a NATO air campaign against Gaddafi, sending its own fighter jets — and then, perhaps more importantly, covertly deploying hundreds of its own special forces on the ground to coordinate the rebel assault that captured Tripoli. In Syria, too, the Emir has said Arabs have a “military duty” to intervene, and has pressed for international action, while reportedly taking a lead in arming rebel forces.

But in all of its interventions, Qatar is discerning, throwing its resources behind its own preferred interlocutors — rival Libyan factions complained that Doha’s support was going principally to the Islamist militia of Abdulaziz Belhadj, while it has reportedly given considerable financial and logistical support to Tunisia’s Ennahda party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,┬áprompting complaints of meddling. In Syria, too, Qatar is believed to be favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in the support it directs to the rebellion.

(MORE: Why the Libyans Have Fallen Out of Love with Qatar)

By betting on the Muslim Brotherhood as the vehicle for its influence throughout the region, Qatar may also be creating an insurance policy for itself, domestically, by having the region’s most powerful political party on board. But it’s not simply defensive; Doha has moved aggressively to take advantage of the region’s political flux to promote its Islamist allies. That’s been good news for Hamas, although the opportunities it has opened up for the Palestinian movement are on the more moderate side of the Islamist street — a trend that Qatar’s investment in Gaza is intended to incentivize. But the “moderate” may mean something quite different in a rapidly democratizing Arab world from what the U.S. would like to see. Then again, no democratically accountable Arab leadership would likely have endorsed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, or U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian and towards Iran.

Sheikh Hamad’s Gaza visit is a symptom of the Middle East’s political order slipping further beyond U.S. control, to a more independent — but not necessarily hostile — position. Indeed, part of Qatar’s strategy appears to be encouraging restraint on the part of Hamas, and insulating it from Iranian influence. Sure, the U.S. won’t like it, but from Qatar’s point of view, Washington’s policy has been dysfunctional and unsustainable.

The spectacle of a U.S. ally to which arming the Syrian opposition is being outsourced embracing a Palestinian movement branded as a terrorist organization by Washington is a sobering reminder that when the Middle East sets its own course, the results can be jarring — although not necessarily threatening. The Qataris’s message to the U.S. about their strategy may follow the old Rolling Stones chorus, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but… you just might get what you need.’ Then again, the rivals of the beneficiaries of Qatar’s largesse in the region would change that last part to read ‘you just might get what we need.’

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