By Shehab Al Makahleh
If anyone wanted confirmation of Russia’s increasing and potentially dominant role in Middle Eastern affairs, they need look no further than the visit last month of Qatar’s young emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, to Moscow. Sheikh Tamim sought Russian President Putin’s assistance in rescuing 26 Qataris kidnapped in southern Iraq, some of whom are members of the royal family.
This visit, kept very quiet in diplomatic circles, could have wide-ranging implications for the future of the region and, in particular, consolidate Russia’s new centrality as a decisive diplomatic player in the Middle East.
In fact, Qatar’s official cover story for the visit of its head of state to Russia reinforces this reality. The Qataris had announced that the visit was related to the peace process in Syria. The meeting with Putin was followed up with an announcement that Qatar counts on Russia to play a major role in resolving the catastrophic situation in Syria through a political settlement, which is at once a U-turn in the Qatari position toward the Syrian cause and an assurance of the constrictive diplomatic role that Russia can play on the ground.
The old American political maxim “all politics are local” may in fact be at play here. It is possible the change in heart by Qatar on the diplomatic front is driven solely by its concerns for its missing citizens. Indeed, among the abducted are believed to be several members of the royal family.
The Qataris were kidnapped from a hunting camp in Samawa, located in southern Iraq, after they were given official permission for the hunting trip by Iraqi authorities. Official reports from Iraq indicate that a group of some 100 gunmen driving dozens of pickup trucks carried out the ambush. The prisoners were taken away to an unknown location. The Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Qatar is a member, described the kidnapping as “an action that harms the bonds of brotherly relations between Arab brothers.”
But regardless of Qatar’s motive, Sheikh Tamim had few other options save for visiting Moscow and seeking from Putin his mediation to help release the kidnapped Qataris. Only Russia has the diplomatic leverage in Iraq—particularly with the Shiite community in southern Iraq believed to be holding the Qataris—to resolve the matter. Russia’s assistance will no doubt come in exchange for diplomatic and political concessions from Qatar. These concessions will likely include finding common ground on a number of foreign policy issues, including Iraq and Syria. Qatar will need to reconsider its sponsorship of a host of Sunni Islamist factions that Ankara and Doha used to increase their political influence in the Middle East. At present, the U.S. and the West lack the same efficacy as Russia in their ability to help Qatar resolve this crisis and influence events on the ground in Syria.
Furthermore, last year Ankara and Doha signed a military agreement permitting joint deployment of troops in either Turkey or Qatar, a remarkable sign of Turkey’s return to the Gulf one century after the withdrawal of Ottoman armies from Qatar. According to Russia’s foreign ministry, all of these issues had been discussed during Tamim’s visit to Moscow, in addition to the release of the Qataris held in Iraq. Qatar, government sources in Moscow say, pledged to stop arming hardline Islamists in Syria and mitigate its previous support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Doha had backed as a proxy against regimes opposing Qatari strategies and policies in the region.
After the emir’s return from Russia, all eyes are on Qatar’s next move in the Syrian-Iraqi quagmire. The ever-shifting sands of regional diplomacy may now be bending to Moscow’s will.
Shehab Al Makahleh is a journalist and co-founder of Geo-strategic and Political Studies of the Middle East Media.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]