ABU DHABI and DOHA — Behind a glittering mall near Doha’s city center sits the quiet restaurant where Hossam used to run his Syrian rebel brigade. At the battalion’s peak in 2012 and 2013, he had 13,000 men under his control near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. “Part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they are loyal to me,” he said over sweet tea and sugary pastries this spring. “I had a good team to fight.”
Hossam, a middle-aged Syrian expat, owns several restaurants throughout Doha, Qatar, catering mostly to the country’s upper crust. The food is excellent, and at night the tables are packed with well-dressed Qataris, Westerners, and Arabs. Some of his revenue still goes toward supporting brigades and civilians with humanitarian goods — blankets, food, even cigarettes.
He insists that he has stopped sending money to the battle, for now. His brigade’s funds came, at least in part, from Qatar, he says, under the discretion of then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah. But the injection of cash was ad hoc: Dozens of other brigades like his received initial start-up funding, and only some continued to receive Qatari support as the months wore on. When the funds ran out in mid-2013, his fighters sought support elsewhere. “Money plays a big role in the FSA, and on that front, we didn’t have,” he explained.
Hossam is a peripheral figure in a vast Qatari network of Islamist-leaning proxies that spans former Syrian generals, Taliban insurgents, Somali Islamists, and Sudanese rebels. He left home in 1996 after more than a decade under pressure from the Syrian regime for his sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of his friends were killed in a massacre of the group in Hama province in 1982 by then President Hafez al-Assad. He finally found refuge here in Qatar and built his business and contacts slowly. Mostly, he laid low; Doha used to be quite welcoming to the young President Bashar al-Assad and his elegant wife, who were often spotted in the high-end fashion boutiques before the revolt broke out in 2011.
When the Syrian war came and Qatar dropped Assad, Hossam joined an expanding pool of middlemen whom Doha called upon to carry out its foreign policy of supporting the Syrian opposition. Because there were no established rebels when the uprising started, Qatar backed the upstart plans of expats and businessmen who promised they could rally fighters and guns. Hossam, like many initial rebel backers, had planned to devote his own savings to supporting the opposition. Qatar’s donations made it possible to think bigger.
In recent months, Qatar’s Rolodex of middlemen like Hossam has proved both a blessing and a curse for the United States. On one hand, Washington hasn’t shied away from calling on Doha’s connections when it needs them: Qatar orchestrated the prisoner swap that saw U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl freed in exchange for five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. And it ran the negotiations with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, that freed American writer Peter Theo Curtis in August. “Done,” Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim Khalifa al-Kubaisireportedly texted a contact — adding a thumbs-up emoticon — after the release was completed.
But that same Qatari network has also played a major role in destabilizing nearly every trouble spot in the region and in accelerating the growth of radical and jihadi factions. The results have ranged from bad to catastrophic in the countries that are the beneficiaries of Qatari aid: Libya is mired in a war between proxy-funded militias, Syria’s opposition has been overwhelmed by infighting and overtaken by extremists, and Hamas’s intransigence has arguably helped prolong the Gaza Strip’s humanitarian plight.
For years, U.S. officials have been willing to shrug off Doha’s proxy network — or even take advantage of it from time to time. Qatar’s neighbors, however, have not.
Over the past year, fellow Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain havepublicly rebukedQatar for its support of political Islamists across the region.
Over the past year, fellow Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have publicly rebuked Qatar for its support of political Islamists across the region. These countrieshave threatened to close land borders or suspend Qatar’s membership in the regional Gulf Cooperation Council unless the country backs down. After nearly a year of pressure, the first sign of a Qatari concession came on Sept. 13, when seven senior Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood figures left Doha at the request of the Qatari government.
Both Qatar and its critics are working to ensure that Washington comes down on their side of the intra-Gulf dispute. At stake is the future political direction of the region — and their roles in guiding it.
Late last week, on Sept. 25, Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept documented how a Washington, D.C.-based firm retained by the United Arab Emirates made contacts with journalists that appear to have yielded articles detailing how fundraisers for groups such as al-Nusra Front and Hamas operate openly in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Foreign Policy also obtained documents from the Camstoll Group, run by former U.S. Treasury Department official Matthew Epstein. Although some of this open-source information is referred to in this article, the vast majority of the reporting comes from months of investigation in the region.
After several weeks of bad press, Qatar is also going on the offensive. “We don’t fund extremists,” Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during his first interview as Qatar’s leader on Sept. 25. Just over a week earlier, Qatar instituted a new law to regulate charities and prevent them from engaging in politics. And on Sept. 15, Doha began a new six-month contract with Washington lobbying firm Portland PR Inc., which may include lobbying Congress and briefing journalists.
So far, Washington appears unwilling to confront Qatar directly. Aside from the U.S. Treasury Department, which last week designated a second Qatari citizen for supporting al Qaeda in Syria and elsewhere, no senior U.S. administration officials have publicly called out Doha for its troublesome clients.
The State Department said that nobody would be available to comment for this article, but released a fact sheet on Aug. 26 that describes Qatar as “a valuable partner to the United States” and credits it with “play[ing] an influential role in the region through a period of great transformation.”
The question is what the United States is prepared to do about Qatar if it fails to stem its citizens’ support for extremist groups, says Jean-Louis Bruguière, the former head of the EU and U.S. Treasury Department’s joint Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, now based in Paris. “The U.S. has the tools to monitor state and state-linked transfers to extremist groups. But intelligence is one thing and the other is how you react,” he told FP by phone. “What kind of political decision is the U.S. really able to make against states financing terrorism?”