On Monday, the Syrian regime began to relocate civilians from two Shia villages in northern Syria. The move is part of a deal that the regime struck with extremist forces in 2015. It is also connected to one of the most perplexing episodes of the Syrian conflict, one that spanned several countries and involved a number of militias in the region.
Starting in December 2015, Qatar and its proxies in Syria, in combination with Iranian proxies in three Arab countries, began discussions around two main issues. One track of the negotiations focused on a truce between extremist groups and forces allied to the Syrian regime. Another track focused on the release of 25 Qatari citizens abducted by Iraqi militants during a hunting trip on December 16, 2015, in southern Iraq.
Coincidentally, discussions about the two elements of the deal came to the fore this week. Two days before the latest round of removals started, The Washington Post reported that leaked documents confirmed that Qatar had paid hundreds of millions of dollars to free the hostages, and some of the money went into the pockets of various militia leaders whose groups are designated as terrorists.
According to the intercepted communications cited by the paper, senior Qatari diplomats signed off on a series of side payments. The leader of an Iraqi militia accused of abducting the Qataris, Kata’ib Hezbollah, was promised $25m. A payment of $50m was set aside for a person identified as “Qassem”, presumably a reference to Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Many of the ills of the region could be summed up by this episode. Some of the worst of both Sunni and Shia extremists were promised millions of dollars as part of a deal that included the displacement of civilians. Qatar, Iran and Turkey put pressure on militias to broker the release of the hunters and for the demographic shift to take place in four Syrian towns. It also showed how Iranian interlocutors could bypass Iraqi authorities to release individuals who had a government permit from Baghdad.
More importantly, the broader deal highlighted Qatar’s problematic position towards extremist groups, and the disconnect between how it and its Gulf neighbours perceive its role in the region.
Doha has categorically denied the payment of a ransom. Supporters also maintain that Qatar is not the only country that has paid money to extremist groups. Additionally, they said the money was intercepted by Iraqi authorities and did not make it to its intended beneficiary. Qatar’s Gulf neighbours, however, see the episode as symptomatic of broader and deeper issues that prompted them to boycott Doha almost a year ago.
Qatar has made a conscious decision to engage extremist groups to position itself as an intermediary between them and state actors. This involved financial, logistical and political support for extremists throughout the region. Doha has also relaxed its definition of an extremist. For instance, Qatari officials have consistently justified their country’s support for Ahrar Al Sham by saying their definition of extremists allowed for collaboration with such groups.
Ahrar Al Sham is a militant Salafi group founded by members of Al Qaeda and the biggest enabler of extremist groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, having struck a special relationship with the formal Syrian branch of Al Qaeda and subsidised its logistics through the sponsorship of joint battles. Qatar was, along with Turkey, the main sponsor of Jaish Al Fateh, which included both Ahrar Al Sham and Al Qaeda.
Comment: Qatar's protestations of innocence get more absurd by the day
Qatar, and Turkey, claimed that the support was provided to Ahrar Al Sham, not Jabhat Al Nusra. But the support went to battles that members of the coalition fought together. The reason why Jabhat Al Nusra, today known as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, dominates in Idlib is because of the gains made by Jaish Al Fateh in early 2015, which would not have happened without Qatari and Turkish support.
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Even while Doha’s legacy of empowering extremists is widely recognised, including by former associates of these groups, denial is seen as the preferred method to escape scrutiny. For instance, Qatar’s complicated support for Jabhat Al Nusra was described by a former member of the group’s top consultative council: “They know the strongest force in the region is [Nusra] and losing that force will not be in their favour.”
To Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Qatar’s ransom payment is seen in this context. The episode was not limited to the payment of a ransom to release abducted citizens. Instead, over the years, Qatar has made extremists stronger in the process of attempting to establish itself as an intermediary between extremists and others.