Why Qatar Is Quietly Supporting a U.S. Strike in Syria

Once a vocal supporter of the Syrian opposition, Doha is now taking a more clandestine track under its new emir.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Doha on June 22, 2013. (Mohamad Dabbouss/Reuters)

DOHA, Qatar – After establishing itself as the epicenter of Syria’s opposition factions, punctuated by the establishment of a rebel embassy in Doha, Qatar is now adopting a distinctly quieter tone on military action against Assad. Observers here say that the Qataris have not renounced their support for an American intervention. They’ve simply chosen not to be the most adamant Middle East voice calling for war.

This apparent change in policy is due, in part, to the rise of Qatar’s new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Tamim assumed his new role in late June after his father, Sheikh Hamad, abdicated after 18 years in power. The young ruler is approaching his new role more gingerly than his father, who had a track record of hyper-active foreign policies. Such policies included supporting the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, backing Arab Spring revolutionary movements, championing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and inserting itself in such war zones as Somalia and Darfur. Tamim has not necessarily distanced himself from these endeavors, but he has apparently chosen to be quieter about them. This extends to Qatar’s Syria policy, as well.

Part of this change in tone stems from the departure of Qatar’s iconic prime minister and foreign minister Hamid Bin Jassim – popularly known as HBJ – whose colorful and outspoken personality was central to the foreign policies of Tamim’s father. HBJ’s influence could be seen in Hamad’s highly controversial foreign policies and Qatar’s massive foreign investments. Tamim has since replaced HBJ with the lower-key Abdullah bin Nasser, who also holds the position of interior minister. Bin Nasser’s second portfolio, observers say, may indicate a more inward looking Qatar for the foreseeable future.

This shift may also coincide with a new willingness to take a backseat to Qatar’s longtime Gulf rival, Saudi Arabia. The rivalry has been punctuated by tensions over Qatar’s sponsorship of the traditionally anti-Saudi Al-Jazeera television network, as well as its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia seeks to minimize. Despite these longstanding tensions, Tamim visited Saudi Arabia in his first official trip abroad in early August, signaling a possible rapprochement between the two countries. Riyadh has since come out in favor of U.S. intervention in Syria, notably through its dominance of the Arab League, which issued a strong statement Sunday. Relative to Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been rather quiet.

While Doha’s posture may reflect a willingness to allow Saudi Arabia to lead, Qatar also harbors a healthy fear of Iran, which lies just across the Gulf. Tehran is a top sponsor of the Assad regime, and it has threatened to attack U.S. interests in the event of an American intervention there. Qatar can certainly be seen as one of those interests, given that it hosts the sprawling al-Udeid airbase, which is crucial to American operations in the Middle East (although the U.S. does not have plans to attack Syria from this base).

Tensions between Qatar and Iran don’t end there. Admittedly, Qatar has found a way to strike a balance with Tehran in comparison to other Sunni Gulf Arab states. But observers here say that these ties are undercut by Qatar’s financial windfall precipitated by its exploitation of its northern gas field, which abuts Iran’s South Pars gas deposits. These are essentially shared resources because drawing gas from one necessarily depletes the other. Qatar has grown into a financial juggernaut through the exploitation of the deposits, while Iran, under international sanctions, has failed to do the same.

Qatari concern over domestic opposition, however, is a nonfactor; Qatar’s posture on Syria is completely indiscernible on the streets. Qataris, who are an insular community, number a mere 300,000 out of the country’s 2 million residents. The expats of Qatar, hailing largely from South Asia, have little to say about the looming conflict.

Despite its generally quiet posture on Syria, though, observers roundly believed that Qatar was still playing an important role behind the scenes – wielding both influence and cash.

Supporting Syria’s rebels is one of Doha’s biggest bets. That’s why Doha is undeniably eager to see an American strike. Whether President Obama follows through or Congress votes down military intervention, Qatar can be counted on to continue its support for Syria’s resistance – just a bit more stealthily.