Even before Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry met in Paris on May 27 to discuss convening an international conference on Syria to be called “Geneva 2,” those opposed to a peace settlement began efforts to derail the Russian-American effort. Virtually none of them is bothering to conceal their intention to disrupt the diplomatic initiative between Moscow and Washington. They are betting on the bloodshed in Syria continuing until the legitimate government in Damascus is overthrown. They obviously are not bothered by the fact that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Syrian citizens will pay with their lives for the unbridled political ambitions of outwardly respectable world leaders. “Babylon must fall,” and at any cost — that is their credo.
The main external actors are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. For them, an end to the war in Syria and a compromise between the government and the opposition would be dangerous because these Wahhabi regimes have already spent tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to foment the conflict. They are convinced that if peace is established in Syria it will mean an end to the Arab Spring and to the Wahhabi radicals’ further expansion in the Arab world and the region as a whole, including their plans for toppling Iran’s legitimate government and the radical Islamization of Central Asia, as well as for stirring up hotbeds of Islamic separatism in Russia, primarily in the North Caucasus. And the failure of their plans could very well be followed by the beginning of domestic unrest in those same monarchies, whose educated young people are already asking: Why spend oil and gas revenues on foreign wars if the money can be used for socioeconomic development and political modernization in Qatar and Saudi Arabia? Especially since reforms are long overdue in those democratically backward states that are still following 18th-century Wahhabi religious norms. The younger generation expects things to change. And fomenting foreign revolutions only serves to distract attention from pressing problems in these reactionary monarchies that have neither parliaments, nor political parties, nor freedom of expression, nor respect for human rights or the rights of minorities and women. Revolutionary change is long overdue in these conservative Persian Gulf monarchies. And the problems of their ethno-religious minorities, which are largely discriminated against, also need to be solved. These are the Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the 15% Shiite population of Qatar, the Yemeni tribes in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Atheer region and the Iranian tribes in Qatar.
These two monarchies are using a variety of methods to disrupt Geneva 2. First of all, they are putting pressure on the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Indeed, it has not yet formed its delegation for the talks. The Qataris and Saudis are taking advantage of having powerful ideological allies on the Coalition council — members of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists — by pitting them against the relatively moderate representatives of the “secular” organizations. Second, Doha and Riyadh are asking for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation as a precondition, understanding very well that it would be impractical for Damascus to meet that demand. It would be like demanding that Stalin step down during the Battle of Stalingrad. Assad is less a charismatic leader than a symbol of resistance to the rebellion that was instigated from outside the country. His departure now would seriously weaken Syria’s current legitimate government if not cause it to surrender. Doha and Riyadh are not so much doing that directly as getting the opposition to shout: “We won’t sit at the same negotiating table with a bloody dictator!” Third, they are making active use of financial levers by bribing allies among the influential NATO countries or the European Union. To do that, the Qataris have stepped up spot deliveries of liquefied natural gas at artificially low prices to EU states while simultaneously dealing a blow to the interests of Russia’s Gazprom there. In addition, transactions through the Qatar Investment Department (its sovereign wealth fund) into the economies of the leading European Union countries and for real estate purchases there have increased. In France alone, the Qataris are investing in sports, the economy and luxury hotels without regard for the costs. It is a strategy of influence that produces results. They have purchased the Paris Saint-Germain football club and several Parisian palaces, and they have infused capital into French companies — hardly a week goes by without reports of investments by this tiny Persian Gulf country that people in France cannot stop talking about. They even created a 50 million euro investment fund for the French suburbs. The family of Emir Hamad owns a lot of real estate in France, including a 4000 square meter villa in Marnes-la-Coquette (the richest city in France — author’s note) The recent purchase of the luxurious Lambert mansion (on the Île Saint-Louis) and enormous expenditures for upgrades (an elevator for cars, for example) aroused the indignation of various associations, and the Ministry of Culture had to intervene to stop construction.
Fourth, they are insisting on artificial conditions like the refusal of Qatar and Saudi Arabia to sit at the same table as Iran. Fifth, various decisions are being made in the United Nations and European agencies that make things uncomfortable for Syria. On May 29, for example, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) approved a resolution drafted by Qatar and co-authored by the United States and Turkey condemning “the intervention of foreign combatants fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime in Qusayr.” The resolution also said the presence of foreign forces poses a “serious threat” to regional stability. But it said nothing about foreign mercenaries receiving Qatari and Saudi money to fight in Syrian opposition units.
Other opponents of Geneva 2, like Great Britain and France, are clearly suffering from an imperial complex in working off the investments and cash flows from the Persian Gulf monarchies. Hence their eagerness to begin arming the rebels early under the decision made a few days ago by the EU’s Council of Foreign Ministers, although August 1 was set as the earliest date for doing so.
In its heart of hearts, the United States is also against the conference on Syria. But it would not be easy for the Obama administration to reject Russia’s peace initiatives and come off as a “war monger.” Washington is simply “playing” with Moscow by not formally rejecting the diplomacy of peace, because then the failure of Geneva 2 can always be blamed on its NATO “partners” and on Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Why should it do that? To free its hands and initiate an open armed intervention in Syria in circumvention of UN Security Council resolutions by first imposing no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors. The United States itself will hang back and have Britain, France, Turkey and the Wahhabi monarchies take the lead, as it did in Libya.
We should not deceive ourselves. Geneva 2 is currently up in the air. The meeting of Russian and American deputy foreign ministers planned for next week will tell us a lot. But judging from the actions of London, Paris, Doha and Riyadh, they are doing everything possible to make sure the war in Syria not only continues but grows into a foreign military intervention bypassing the UN. The “moment of truth,” as the Americans say, is truly coming. They are fully capable of bringing their allies to heel, both those in Europe and in the Arab world, but for some reason they are not doing it.
Viktor Titov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Middle East analyst. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.