Why Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda split is threat to Qatar’s balancing strategy in the Middle EastThe July 29 announcement by Jabhat al-Nusra on severing affiliation ties with Al Qaeda and changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham came as a blessing for Qatar, which for a long time has tried to encourage the group of making such a move. Doha is interested in using the significant fighting capabilities of al-Nusra on the ground to pursue one of its foreign policy goals in the Middle East – the overthrow of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and accumulation of influence in the post-war Syria through its other backed opposition groups infused with Muslim brotherhood influence (e.g. National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces). The official split with Al Qaeda allows to better internationally legitimize financial support, which Qatar has been willing to provide to Al-Nusra and better dodge bullets of criticism launched by its main external ally and security provider – the United States of America, which recognizes the fighter group as a terrorist organization, despite its focus on the fight against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Although, the greater diplomatic flexibility in supporting Al-Nusra in the Syrian civil war will undoubtedly enhance weight in the regional politics of the Middle East, it threatens Qatar’s ability to play the balancing game between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has underlined the strategy of Doha ever since the reign of Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (1995-2013).

 

The basis of this strategy is the attempt to keep close relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia – the two great powers in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, which are at odds with each other and are Qatar’s neighbours. By doing so, Qatar tries to minimize the potential spillovers from the conflicts, which could ensue from their regional rivalry and also escape any potential hostilities, directed to it by either Tehran or Riyadh (or both). On the one hand, Qatar is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council and its constructed mutual defence structure, however on the other hand, it has signed bilateral agreement with Tehran “to combat terrorism and promote security cooperation” and has strong economic bonds with the clerical regime, due to sharing North Dome/South Pars gas field (largest in the world). There are also plans to establish joint free trade zone in the southern Iranian province of Bushehr and its adjacent territories and also plans to continue dialogue with the clerical regime following the adoption of the nuclear deal.

 

However, the enhanced support for Jabhat al-Nusra that might follow threatens to undermine this fragile balance and puts Qatar dangerously close to pro-Saudi camp. Taking into the account that Qatar-Iran relations have already deteriorated due to Doha’s decision to align itself with Saudi Arabia’s position on Syria and Yemen issues, even further military pressure on Bashar al-Assad - the vital ally of clerical regime, definitely won’t be taken lightly in Tehran. Such a situation puts strain on the currently cordial relations with Iran and can put Qatar under diplomatic pressure. As a result, it might also increase dependency on the decisions of Saudi Arabia in its conflict with the clerical regime. It has become increasingly relevant since January 3, when Saudi Arabia and Iran broke their diplomatic ties following the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The conflict between two countries since then has reached very high levels.

 

It should also be mentioned that it is very problematic for Qatar to reverse its Syria policy and decide not to increase support for the fighter group following its split from Al-Qaeda. Taking into account, that in March 2014 Saudi Arabia together with its Gulf allies – Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors from Doha, due to Qatar’s wide support for the Muslim brotherhood and its affiliated groups, any significant deviation from the foreign policy trajectory pursued by Riyadh threatens to resurface serious tensions between both countries. The mutual desire to see Bashar al-Assad go from the political stage of Syria has motivated Saudi Arabia to be more inclined to ignore Qatar’s support for the Muslim brotherhood, which Saudis sees as a threat to the stability of their internal regime. If Qatar decides to back down from its desire to increase support for Jabhat al-Nusrain order to remove Assad, it might irritate Saudi Arabia and threaten one of the main pillars of the currently more cooperative relationship with the largest Gulf monarchy. Doha can then similarly as in Iran’s case face increased risk of having worsening relations with one of two regional great powers at its doorstep and find itself in a worse position in Saudi-Iranian conflict.

 

The current situation Qatar is facing can be branded as a political trap in which it gets increasingly hard to maintain friendly relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia simultaneously and play the traditional balancing game of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. It can be considered to be a product of the failed attempt to capitalize on the uprisings in Syria, Egypt and Libya, following the eruption of the Arab Spring. With the support for the Muslim Brotherhood in these countries, Qatar hoped to gain influential regional allies, which could help to break its traditional dependence on Saudi-Iranian political interactions. However, the inability of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated factions to come to power (consolidate power in Egypt’s case), has left Qatar empty-handed and angered elites in both Tehran and Riyadh. This resentment against Qatar’s response to the Arab spring and deteriorating relations following it, has made Doha’s flexibility vis-à-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia very limited. Regardless of the way how Qatar chooses to handle the increase of post-Al-Qaeda support to Jabhat al-Nusra, which is still vital if Doha ever wants to see its primary supported Muslim Brotherhood infused opposition groups to take power, it will strain its relations with either Iran or Saudi Arabia. Such a situation forces Qatar to choose sides and is a nail in the coffin for any strategy, which aims to balance between two players. The trap can be escaped only by significant external developments in the Middle East, which are yet hard to predict.

 

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