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Is Qatar Changing Course on Syria?

© Sputnik / Alexei Nikolsky / Go to the mediabankPresident Vladimir Putin meeting with Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, January 18, 2016.
President Vladimir Putin meeting with Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, January 18, 2016. - Sputnik International
On Monday, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Thani arrived in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin. And while the two men exchanged kind words, Putin highlighting Qatar's important role in the Middle East, and Hamad countering by stressing Russia's 'decisive role in ensuring global stability', analysts pondered the real reason for the visit.

For his part, Gevorg Mirzayan, special correspondent for the respected Russian business magazine Expert, suggested that what the Qatari emir may be after is a diplomatic solution which would offer his country something akin to peace with honor in Syria – in other words, an honorable surrender.

"At first glance, of course," Mirzayan writes, "there wasn't any talk of a capitulation. The two sides exchanged their positions, complemented one another, and talked about the Middle East. In the Middle Eastern tradition, the emir did not pass up a [chance to offer a] regal criticism of Israel, and asked Russia for help in ending the blockade of the Gaza Strip. However, it's obvious that the main theme of the talks was the Syrian conflict."

President Vladimir Putin meets with Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani - Sputnik International
Putin Highlights Qatar's Role in Middle East as Important
"The position of the Qatari leader, it might seem, was somewhat strange. From the start of the Russian air campaign in Syria, Qatari officials stepped out loudly and often, saying that the Kremlin was carrying out the wrong policy. The Qatari-owned television network Al-Jazeera reported on dozens of women and children said to have been the victims of Russian bombs, and claimed that Russia was not fighting a war against terrorism, but on the side of a 'bloodthirsty dictator'."

"However, in Moscow, the emir expressed a different opinion."

"We are counting on our friends in Russia to play a large role in resolving the catastrophic situation which has befallen the Syrian people, with this tragedy, and to reach a political settlement," Tamim noted, during his meeting with Russian lower house speaker Sergei Naryshkin on Monday. 

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani - Sputnik International
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"Qatar has indeed supported a political settlement from the first day. In addition, we support all organizations and international initiatives aimed at finding a political solution, provided that it shall be satisfactory to all parties," Tamim added.

For his part, Mirzayan believes that "such a sharp change in rhetoric" is not mere diplomatic courtesy: "The emir is simply adapting, and it's no secret that Qatar is now in a very difficult situation."

This, the journalist notes, is the result of Qatar's regional conflict with Saudi Arabia. "After former emir [Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's] plans to seize the leadership of the Middle East collapsed [in 2013], he was forced to resign, and it fell upon his son, Tamim, to improve relations with Doha's neighbors, who had long sought to put the emirate in its place."

The new government's "plans did not succeed. Less than 10 days after Tamim's accession to the throne, the Egyptian military, in an unholy alliance with the Saudi monarchy, toppled the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, in whom the Qataris had invested a great deal of effort and resources. The new emir found himself isolated, and was forced to maneuver desperately to salvage the emirate's influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and its allies presented Doha with an ultimatum looking to deny Qatar any influence in the region."

President Vladimir Putin meets with Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani - Sputnik International
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"However," Mirzayan recalled, "in the summer of 2015, the pressure suddenly stopped. In July Saudi Arabia's King Salman met with Tamim and resolved all their outstanding issues for the sake of their efforts against a common enemy: Iran and its Syrian friends. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its allies allowed Qatar to retain its influence in exchange for support for the anti-Assad resistance in Syria."

"Factually, Doha went all in on Syria, even to the point of spoiling relations with the West (Washington and Brussels are well aware of who provides support for Daesh). For a time, it appeared that the gamble was working – Daesh successfully attacked government troops, expanding their zone of control even in Latakia, the stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Then, suddenly, Russia joined the war, and the balance of power in the region changed dramatically."

Subsequently, according to Mirzayan, Tamim's visit to Moscow is connected to a search for options on how Qatar might extricate itself from the Syrian conflict. 

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - Sputnik International
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"It is hardly likely that Emir Tamim hoped to 'reach a deal' with Vladimir Putin – to convince him to withdraw from Syria and allow Qatar to win. The Saudis had already tried this option and it led them nowhere. Moreover, it would make no sense for Putin to leave now, given that his chances for victory (and the associated dividends) are very high."

In any case, "it cannot be excluded that the emir's apparent willingness to take a constructive stance on Syria has one long-term goal: to achieve a rapprochement with Iran. After all, following a normalization of relations with Iran, Qatar would be able to cool the Saudis' ardor, and get them to stop the dangerous pressure on Qatar which threatens to push the emirate to the 'other side'."

"Of course," Mirzayan says, "this does not mean that the emir's visit to Moscow resulted in some agreement. But the very fact that Qatar has begun a dialogue on changing its position serves as an important signal to all participants of this 'game', which covers not just Syria, but the Middle East as a whole."

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