On Monday, a virulent Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem went on Syrian TV and railed and made threats against the European Union following its sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Mouallem’s frustration was, in a way, understandable, as the ground under the regime he represents is shifting rapidly, and relations with its precious few friends outside Iran have deteriorated dramatically. Perhaps none of these reversals in friendships has been as sudden and curious, but also as telling of the geopolitical flux underway, as the rift with Qatar.
Over the last few years, the Assad regime had cultivated ties with a number of foreign players who were critical in helping it emerge from the international isolation imposed on it in 2005. Undoubtedly, the most important of these have been France, Turkey and Qatar.
It was France, after all, that first led Syria out of its isolation in 2008, when President Nicolas Sarkozy threw Assad a lifeline, inviting him to the Bastille Day celebrations and the EuroMed summit. Now, Paris is leading the European pack in sanctioning the Syrian president and his cronies. Similarly, Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invested deeply in Syria, and in Bashar al-Assad personally. The Turks have nevertheless been on the receiving end of Syrian ire for hosting a meeting of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in April and for planning to host an even broader conference of the Syrian opposition later this month.
But perhaps most intriguing has been the case of Qatar, if only for the abruptness of the transformation in its relations with Damascus. Initially, Qatar’s formidable media tool – Al Jazeera – seemed to avoid in-depth, let alone critical, coverage of the uprising in Syria. This went with Doha’s traditional tailoring of its media coverage to suit its foreign policy priorities and alliances.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, Al Jazeera’s editorial attitude shifted. Journalistic sources speak of a directive from the higher-ups that effectively gave the green light to let loose. Al Jazeera’s coverage went beyond airing the graphic videos of Assad’s brutal assault against his people to hosting Syrian human rights activists and dissidents on its widely-viewed shows, at times facing – and shaming – apologists for the regime.
In addition, Al Jazeera hit Assad in a sensitive spot, turning his so-called “resistance” credentials against him, when former Arab Member of the Knesset Azmi Bishara – who until recently was feted in Damascus as a symbol of Arab resistance – criticized the regime, including Assad’s inheritance of power from his father, on the air and ridiculed its narrative depicting the uprising as a foreign conspiracy. As far as Assad is concerned, that Bishara, who resides in Doha, was allowed to use the Al Jazeera platform meant this was official Qatari policy.
But the worst offense from Assad’s perspective was when another Doha resident, and host of an Al Jazeera show, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, put his weight behind the anti-regime protests and also lashed out at Assad for treating Syria like “an estate” that he “inherited from [his] father.”
Qaradawi’s remarks in support of the uprising were a step too far, and the Syrian regime began blaming the sheikh for inciting the protests and sowing sedition in Syria. The episode led to a stormy meeting between Assad and the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassem, during which Assad reportedly warned that no further meetings would be held until Qatar apologized for Qaradawi’s statements. Moreover, Assad allegedly threatened the Prime Minister that Qatar could lose its $6 billion investments in Syria as a result of Al Jazeera’s policy.
The regime’s focus on Qaradawi may have revealed its deep fears. Aside from the undermining of its “resistance” image and beyond the possible sectarian undertones, Qaradawi’s statements highlighted broader geopolitical concerns.
After all, this is the sheikh who only a few months ago presided over a massive rally in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. And so, Qaradawi’s significance is related not only to his influence among the Muslim Brothers, but also to what his posture says about the possible foreign policy orientation of a post-Mubarak Egypt seeking to reassert itself on the Arab scene. If the past tells the Syrian rulers anything, Cairo’s resurgence will come at Damascus’ expense.
It can be argued that this is already playing out in an emerging Qatari-Egyptian rapprochement. For one, even as Assad has suspended Qatar’s $6 billion investment in projects in Syria, Doha’s ambassador to Cairo announced that a Qatari economic delegation will be visiting Egypt on Saturday to sign several agreements that would inject more than $10 billion in Qatari investments.
Moreover, although Hamas has denied it, rumors emerged in late April of Hamas relocating its offices from Damascus to Doha, and of its plans to open a new office in Cairo. This came around the same time that Egypt sponsored the inter-Palestinian reconciliation deal, and it signals a desire by Hamas to expand its options and explore the new opportunities in post-Mubarak Egypt. It also indicates a possible bid by Egypt to lay claim to Hamas – something sought by Turkey as well, which is now also opening its doors to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
The unfolding regional dynamics, and their intersection with its domestic troubles, are doubtless a source of much consternation in Damascus. Almost a year ago, I wrote about Syria “falling back into its historical role as the land between greater powers to its east, north and south.” Now, the natural order of the Levant may be slowly restoring itself.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.