Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker (C) takes journalists on a tour of the airline's new Airbus A340-600 aircraft. Photo: Rabih Moghrabi / AFP

Qatar Airways, one of the top-ranked global carriers, has returned to Syrian airspace – the latest benefit of thawing relations between Damascus and its wartime rivals.

The permit was granted “based on Qatar’s request,” according to a statement by the Syrian Ministry of Transportation released late last month. 

Presently only a handful of international airlines land in Damascus, including Russia’s Aeroflot, Iraqi Airways, Fly Baghdad, Al-Nasser Wings, Sudanese Airways, and Iran Air, while Lebanon’s Middle East Air has operated flights over its neighbor throughout the civil war.

A private Syrian airline company, Cham Wings, operates flights regularly to the United Arab Emirates, while Syria’s national carrier, Syrian Arab Airways, travels to a handful of regional destinations, including Egypt, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

The return of Qatar’s national carrier to Syrian airspace comes on the heels of diplomatic efforts by Iran to promote a normalization of relations between Syria and neighboring Turkey – and, by extension, Turkey’s key ally Qatar. This rapprochement has been peddled by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who visited Damascus on April 16-17, arriving directly from Turkey.

Tehran maintains a strong relationship with both Ankara and Doha, despite its unwavering support of their nemesis, President Bashar al-Assad.

The immediate effect of Zarif’s visit was to trigger – or provoke – the Saudis into re-engaging with Damascus. Days after Iran’s top diplomat visited the Syrian capital, Russian Presidential Envoy Alexander Lavrentiev also landed in Damascus, this time carrying an offer from rival Riyadh.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been working to strangle Doha into submission for the past two years by suspending relations and imposing a crippling embargo on the gas-rich country in June 2017. The powerful prince known as MBS would prefer to make peace with Assad than allow the Qataris, Turks, or Iranians to gain the slightest foothold in Damascus.

Discreet diplomatic gain

The symbolic return of Qatar Airways to Syrian airspace achieves immediate, low-profile gains for both Damascus and Doha. For starters, it helps both countries break out of the isolation imposed on them – Qatar by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Syria by the international community.

When Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, imposed an embargo on Qatar two summers ago, the airspace of those four blockading countries was sealed off to Qatar Airways.

Syria was already off-limits, having banned the Qatari carrier over Doha’s support for the Syrian armed opposition since 2011.

As a result, Qatar Airways’ flight itineraries increased by 90 minutes or more, warranting stopovers in neutral capitals like Muscat, or forcing planes to make lengthy detours over Turkey or Iraq, at the expense of time, money, and customer satisfaction.

Qatar Airways in February 2018 reported $69 million in losses due to the Saudi-led blockade. Thus, the ability to fly over Syria, a large country bordering Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean Sea, will thus help simplify flight routes. 

As for Damascus, the return of Qatar Airways means a regular cash flow – in US dollars – to the Syrian treasury at a critical time for the Syrian economy, which is struggling under the weight of sanctions and fuel shortages.

It is a prelude, it seems, to allowing Qatar Airways to resume flights to and from Damascus International Airport. This raises hope that such a move would trigger Saudi Arabia into similar action, such as resuming commercial flights – and even diplomatic ties – with Damascus. 

Qatar-backed rebellion

Diplomatically, this is the furthest Damascus and Doha have gone to improve relations since Qatar put its full weight behind the Syrian opposition eight years ago. That policy shift came despite a previously warm relationship between Qatar’s former emir, Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, and President Assad. It is unclear exactly what went wrong between the two countries, apart from speculation that the Qataris wanted to inject Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist elements into the Syrian government.

On the heels of apparent successes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the Qatari emir backed regime change efforts in Syria, his Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel becoming an official mouthpiece for the Syrian opposition – resulting in it being banned in Damascus.

Jihadist groups on Syrian battlefields regularly received cash and arms from the Qataris. According to the Financial Times, Qatar paid up to $3 billion to armed Syrian groups during the first two years of the conflict, with up to $50,000 per defection from the Syrian army.

But in June 2013, the emir suddenly abdicated in favor of his son, the present Emir Tamim Bin Hamad. That same year, Doha’s all-time favorite leader, Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, was toppled by a military coup led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, putting a further damper on Qatar’s regional influence.

Funding for the Syrian opposition began to dry up when the Qatari-Saudi quarrel broke out in 2017, as many Syrian opposition members were forced to choose between Riyadh and Doha. Only those with an Islamist agenda or official members of the Muslim Brotherhood remained close to the Qataris, meriting an automatic blacklist from Riyadh.

Discreetly, the isolated Gulf monarchy began to improve its relations with Damascus.

In March 2018, the sports federations of Syria and Qatar signed a cooperation agreement, reportedly at the urging of Iran. Two months later, investigative British journalist Robert Fisk reported that relations were being re-established with Qatar at a “humble level.” In April, in addition to the Qatar Airways breakthrough, the ban on al-Jazeera’s website was lifted in Syria – another gesture that went by largely unnoticed amid other major regional news developments. 

“Given how all Gulf monarchies are slowly and quietly exploring their options for re-engagement, Syria will become an exemplary case study of how the current leaderships in the monarchies are much more driven by realpolitik and pragmatism than by ideology,” said Qatar analyst Cinzia Bianco. 

Speaking to Asia Times, the senior analyst at the Washington-based Gulf Analytics added that it will be “crucial” in the period to come to observe which monarchy – the Saudis or the Qataris – will be received more warmly in Damascus.

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