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Who’s Pulling the Strings in the Middle East? Little Qatar, says Syria

S ource: NYT

The Syrian regime is in no doubt about who sits at the center of a web of international conspiracy seeking to undermine it: the rulers of the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar.

Like the regime of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and that of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya before it, Syria has singled out Qatar as an éminence grise behind the unrest in its streets.

In a dispatch on Tuesday, the Syrian State news agency SANA claimed to have discovered a document showing Qatar was funding writers in Russia to fabricate news about Syria.

“That document comes to add to a collection of evidence and facts which stress that Qatar supports the armed terrorist groups in addition to its media war against Syria through al-Jazeera and other TV channels,” SANA said.

There is some circumstantial motivation for Damascus’s paranoia. Qatar last year sent its aircraft and special forces to Libya to assist rebel forces in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. It was the first Arab country to recognize Libya’s rebel National Transitional Council.

And last month, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, became the first Arab leader to propose military intervention to halt the killing in Syria.

The emirate certainly boxes well above its weight. Backed by oil and gas wealth that translates into annual per capita income of $110,000, the second highest in the world, Qatar has emerged since the 1990s as a central diplomatic player on the regional stage.

With a total population estimated at 1.7 million — the World Bank says that more than 80 percent are expatriates — the emirate now rates as the fifth biggest economy in the Middle East. It maintains a high international profile to remind the world — and, as importantly, its own powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran — that it matters.

How has a state smaller than Connecticut, with an indigenous population that barely rivals Bakersfield, California, succeeded in instilling such fear and antipathy in the hearts of the Middle East’s authoritarian rulers?

On the diplomatic front, it has succeeded in maintaining good contacts with states as diverse as Israel and Iran, and with political movements that include the Afghan Taliban and Lebanon’s radical Hezbollah movement.

In the past week, it brokered a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, the rival Palestinian movements, and, as my colleague Alissa J. Rubin wrote from Kabul, it is said to be hosting meetings between U.S. and Taliban officials.

Embattled Arab regimes have persistently accused the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera channel of exercising a malign influence in the region. They have denounced it as an extension of Qatari foreign policy in spite of assurances from the emirate that it exercises no influence over the broadcaster.

Some regional analysts say the policy of Qatar’s rulers has little to do with promoting radical change in the Middle East and everything to do with preventing the winds of change in the region blowing away conservative regimes such as their own. For that reason, it had favored seemingly more malleable Islamic groups over potentially more threatening democratic trends.

Hussein Ibish, Senior Research Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a Washington-based Middle East analyst, told Rendezvous that Qatari policy was geared to preventing the new Arab liberationist narrative from spreading to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

“It also seeks to limit the influence of Iran and its allies; to promote Islamist alternatives in post-dictatorship Arab societies over liberal or, worse still, revolutionary ones; and to ensure that the regional order is not threatened at a core strategic level,” Dr. Ibish said.

One Arab commentator, Samir Boutamdja, has described Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad as a latter-day Renaissance Doge of Venice, a geographically tiny state that acted as a diplomatic intermediary between the Vatican and the Ottoman Sultan in order to avoid being swallowed by either of them.

Despite its network of close diplomatic relationships, ties with Russia are less secure. Last November, in a week when Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, criticized Qatar’s role in Libya, Russia’s ambassador to Qatar protested that he had been assaulted by customs officials at Doha airport attempting to confiscate his diplomatic pouch and steal its secrets. Mr Lavrov responded by suspending diplomatic ties with Qatar.

This week, Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs, has described Russian and Chinese vetoes of a United Nations Security Council resolution on the Syria crisis as “a license to kill” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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