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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Stances on the Syrian Crisis Redraw the Map of the Region

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Headlines describing the 24th Arab Summit held in Doha this week reflect profound division over Syria and Qatar's role in effecting change in the Arab Region. Doha has taken over the presidency of the Arab league for what could be one of the most important years of the transitional period. Qatar remains the mystery which perhaps every Arab and non-Arab is trying to decipher, with few exceptions. The year Qatar now faces represents a difficult test of which its bold style may not spare it the perils. Yet there is between the mystery and the legacy a certain distance and a fateful relationship, not just for Qatar and its unconventional leadership, but also for a region going through a phase that is equally fragile and fateful. It would be wise for Qatar's leadership to take decisions devoid of the flavor of innovation and try to reach a clear understanding with the Arab people. Mystery is not serious enough a policy for the scale of the massive events that have been shaking the region even since change came to it in what has been dubbed the Arab Spring. And ambiguity - whether constructive or destructive - is not a policy that people will accept while they waver to the tune of questions and concerns. If the purpose of this new approach is to respect people's rights, as Qatar's leadership claims, then its first step must be to exert sincere efforts to dispel doubts over its intentions and seek to identify the reasons for distrust in Qatar's agenda, in order to resolve them. That is, if Doha really does wish to make use of its presidency to open a new chapter and turn over the page of the mystery tactic, pouncing on the strings of regional and international balances of power for reasons that serve its own ends. But it may not wish to do so. If Doha were to consider that there is no need to explain what it has in mind, as long as it is doing as it pleases, it will unfortunately not give up its known methods.

The Doha Summit has inspired contradictory headlines. It has been described as the summit of "legitimizing chaos in Syria... and the Arab World" and of "robbing Damascus of its seat." It has also been described as the summit of "embracing the Syrian revolution and its work" and of "legitimizing the armament of the Syrian opposition", as well as the summit of "Damascus's seat". One headline even described it as being part of "replacing Arab nationalism with political Islam," while another considered it to be the summit of "recognizing the right of countries to arm the opposition". There is nothing wrong with the goal of the Arab Summit to rebuild Syria after all this terrible destruction. It would be highly appreciated for the billion-dollar fund for Jerusalem to be implemented. There is no shame in making use of financial influence against the tyranny of the one party and to promote good governance. Opposition forces need financial support if there is a political decision to arm them. In fact, there is an urgent need to inject funds towards healing the wounds and the pains of Syrian refugees, who represent one quarter of Syria's inhabitants. Clearly the decision-making and influence in drafting the map of the Arab region is now in the hands of countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Qatar in particular now holds the presidency at the Arab Summit, which gives it the legitimacy to exercise its influence. It also possesses tremendous amounts of funds, which gives it the instruments to exercise such influence, as well as unconventional boldness for taking decisions.

What Qatar also holds is a legacy of profound division among Arab countries, as well as the rivalries and enmities such division entails. To be sure, the countries that voiced reservations over giving Syria's seat to the opposition at the Doha Summit are angry countries that have submitted. Thus, Iraq is stifled by being torn up internally, and Algeria is busy with its own domestic priorities - and these are traditionally the two most powerful states that have voiced reservations, in terms of their weight and influence. The League of Arab States itself is also prey to division, having become in the opinion of many of its angry members monopolized by GCC countries. Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil al-Araby could invoke, in the face of his critics, the fact that the major developments that have occurred in the stances of the Arab League over the past two years freed it from the confines of the dictates of regimes and allowed it to be characterized by boldness and initiative, especially in terms of refusing to stand idly by while ruling regimes shed the blood of their people in Libya or in Syria.

The role of the Arab League will be under double scrutiny during the coming year due to Qatar holding the presidency. This is why it must be distinguished by transparency, wisdom and insistence on refusing to follow the approach of mystery and ambiguity. If the Arab League is in favor of heading to the United Nations to support the Syrian National Coalition obtaining Damascus's seat at the UN General Assembly, then it must stop complaining about what the international community or the Security Council does or does not do, and replace blame with a proactive strategy. The sight of the Syrian delegation in Syria's seat at the Doha Summit headed by Moaz al-Khatib, with the flag of the Syrian Revolution in front of him, a "mosaic" of the Syrian people's diverse sects and ethnic groups beside and behind him, and to his left a woman, was a potent one indeed, morally and politically. It was also a unique scene in the development of Arab revolutions, which erupted at the start of the decade. Most of the images of leaderships produced by these revolutions have been nearly devoid of diversity, and certainly of women. In fact, the predominance of Islamists in power and their resolve to monopolize it and monopolize decision-making has turned elections into a cheap way of capturing democracy in order to misrepresent and distort it to serve their original purpose - that of holding power and imposing their rule in the name of religion. Qatar is accused of being the one sponsoring the rise of Islamists to power, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

This explains the distrust of Qatar among the ranks of modernists and secularists in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and anywhere else. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim tried at his press conference after the Doha Summit to reassure those concerned that his country supports the Egyptian army, not the tyranny of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a noteworthy step. Nevertheless, Qatar's policy as a whole needs to be explained, or else it will remain the object of doubt and missing trust, regardless of the important role it could play in toppling tyrannical regimes.

In every issue, there is a Qatari mystery. On the issue of Palestine, for example, Qatar makes use of its influence and of its funds at times to promote Hamas and strike a blow against the Palestinian Authority, and at others to drive towards inter-Palestinian reconciliation in Egypt. There is also the decision taken by the Doha Summit to send a delegation to Washington to drive the peace process with Israel forward and to revive the Arab Peace Initiative in the American capital. On the issue of Iran too there are contradictions and some ambiguity that demands to be clarified. Doha has had an in-depth relationship with Tehran for years prior to the eruption of the Syrian issue. Communication channels between Qatar and the Islamic Republic of Iran also remain open, and Doha considers the security system in the Gulf region to require Tehran's presence within it.

There is complete agreement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the issue of Syria, which at the end of the day certainly touches upon Iran, in view of the latter's deep relationship with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. Indeed, the priority for Saudi Arabia and Qatar right now is to change the regime in Damascus. And it is no coincidence that the summit of "the seat" in Doha, which struck a blow against the regime in Damascus, came accompanied by Riyadh revealing that Saudi authorities had arrested a spy cell that implicates Iran. Whether it is to reject it or submit to it, Iran is faced with a decision by the Gulf Arabs, and by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, not to back down on their insistence on changing the Syrian regime. Doha may wish to contain Iran's adventure in Syria through dialogue, as does Washington, but it will not depart from its resolve not to live with what Tehran wants, which is to maintain Bashar al-Assad's regime in power. What will Tehran do? That is the bigger question.

While Iran is subjected to economic sanctions which Russia will at the end of the day not be able to compensate for, the boldness of the Gulf Arabs emerges, connected to their ability to provide funds. This gives the Gulf unprecedented power, which will be reflected precisely where its battle against Iran is taking place - in the Syrian arena. The goal is now clear for the countries of the Gulf, and it is to change the map of the region by changing the map of the regime in Syria. What is the strategy of the Gulf Arabs towards Syria in terms of Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi ramifications? The answer to this question comes in numerous layers, some of them serious and others truly lacking the necessary seriousness.

The countries of the Gulf may wish to draw Jordan closer to them in a radical manner, but they are still following the customary method based on rationing aid instead of committing to a strategy that would place all partners on the same level. The countries of the Gulf want to draw Lebanon away from Syrian-Iranian hegemony, but seem confused between threats and promises. There is on the part of those countries a lack of clarity - and of implementation - in their pledges to resolve the crisis of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who are in dire need of assistance. There are promises floating around, but promises do not represent a serious policy if they remain unimplemented. The battle over Syria between some GCC countries and Iran must not be a haphazard one. The discussion that needs to take place is not so much between the United States and Iran as between the Arab Gulf countries and Iran. There are communication channels between Doha and Tehran that must be activated in order to establish some kind of discussion, which would be aimed at truly preventing Lebanon from falling over into the Syrian abyss. Perhaps such a discussion could lead to speaking frankly of the fact that Iran now controls political decision-making in Baghdad, with this being accepted by the United States, if Tehran were to agree to release its grip on Syria.

To be sure, Washington is not completely absent from what is happening in the Middle East, no matter how much it may seem to waiver in its decisions. President Barack Obama has brokered reconciliation between Turkey and Israel, which coincided with a qualitative shift in the process of reconciliation between Turkey and the Kurds. His Secretary of State John Kerry has leapt forward in an important visit to Baghdad in order to inform Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the blessing of the United States for his remaining in power would be linked to his sealing the border with Syria, instead of facilitating Iranian violations of Iraqi airspace in order to provide the regime in Damascus with military supplies.

It is once again an issue of repositioning, regionally and internationally, in order to draft the map of the new Middle East. The shifting balance has focused the spotlight on the actions of the United States, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey. Yet the leaders of the BRICS countries have in turn met amid polarization, which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems not to have been very successful with, at least for now, and until further notice.

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