Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Qatar has drawn harsh criticism from regional competitors such Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for using its wealth to play both sides of the conflicts in Syria and Libya by funding radical Islamist groups. A hostage release deal that reportedly saw Qatar pay upwards of US$1 billion to an al-Qaeda affiliate and Iran has helped push the Gulf state’s neighbors to finally take action.

Former US defense department official and advisor to the Syrian Coalition, Oubai Shahbandar, wrote last week on why the US should move military assets out of Qatar, back to Saudi Arabia, foreshadowing the move this week by four Gulf states to isolate Doha.

Shahbandar pointed to a meeting between a Qatari official and Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official and personal advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei:

“That is why recent reports that a Qatari official met with Soleimani fit into the wider operational methodology of the IRGC. Soleimani is the keeper of Iran’s foreign policy, particularly when it relates to the Arabian Gulf and Syria…

Soleimani is the one who holds the cards and personally oversees the logistics and operational direction of the myriad Shiite extremist militias from Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and the wider region. For Soleimani, the only “cooperation” that Iran can accept is pledging fealty to Iran as the predominant power in the Muslim world.”

Shahbandar added that the hostage release deal in April advanced Iran’s goals in Syria:

Qatar already once before struck a deal with the devil, when they negotiated directly with Iran to gain the release of members of the royal family who were kidnapped, shockingly, by Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah militants. That deal involved a complex trade that included a cease-fire and forced displacement of thousands of Syrian families in four Syrian towns which ultimately advanced Iran’s agenda of changing the demographics of Syria to benefit its sectarian militias.

Doha’s negotiations with Iran have proved to be a bitter display of utter humiliation and kowtowing to Soleimani and the Iranian sectarian agenda he represents. In Iraq and Syria, Soleimani has demonstrated time and time again that Iran’s diplomatic overtures are meant to achieve the overarching objective of entrenching the “wilayat Al-faqih” concept and Khamenei’s role in it. There is no “moderation” or mutually beneficial cooperation possible with such a paradigm.

The Financial Times spoke with people involved on both sides of the hostage deal, further shedding light on how Saudi Arabia and company were pushed to isolate Qatar:

“’The ransom payments are the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ said one Gulf observer…

‘If you want to know how Qatar funds jihadis, look no further than the hostage deal,’ said a Syrian opposition figure who has worked with an al-Qaeda mediator on hostage swaps in Syria. ‘And this isn’t the first — it is one of a series since the beginning of the war’…

Two regional diplomats said they believed one of the Iraqi group’s motives for the kidnapping was to give Hizbollah and Iran leverage to negotiate the release of Shia fighters kidnapped by the radical Sunni group Tahrir al-Sham in Syria…

One western diplomat said the arrangement provided Qatar the ‘cover’ to finance the hostage deal. ‘Iran and Qatar had long been looking for a cover to do this [hostage] deal, and they finally found it,’ he said…

‘They [the Iranians] took the lion’s share,’ said a member of one of the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. ‘That’s caused some of us to be frustrated, because that was not the deal.’”

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