Original published by interpolit.ru; translated from Russian by J.Hawk
Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid al-Attiya refused to rule out a military invasion of Syria.
–We, together with our Saudi brothers and Turkey are not ruling out any variants of protecting the Syrian people, the minister said in an interview with CNN Arabic.
–If the military option is necessary in order to protect the Syrians from the regime’s cruelty, then yes, al-Attiya said in response to a question whether Qatar is considering a military option.
The minister also said “there are many ways” to implement this option, but did not go into details. He also said that Qatar is continuing to support the Ahrar ash-Sham group because it considers it to be part of the “moderate” opposition, not extremist one.
Syria, in turn, reacted to the Qatari minister’s statement. “If Qatar carries out its threat to invade Syria militarily, we will consider it an act of direct aggression,” said Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal Meqdad.
Even though many experts view Qatar’s statements on military intervention in Syria as comical, it would be wrong to underestimate the country “thanks” to which the organization which today bears the name Islamic State appeared in the first place.
Aleksandr Khramchikhin, the deputy director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, if Riyadh always supported “traditional” Sunni radicals who, as a rule, are close to al-Qaeda, then Doha opted to created a wholly new structure which ultimately became the Islamic Khalifate. Qatar, together with Saudi Arabia, played a significant role in overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya.
And even though Qatar is a tiny country, it is one of the greatest hydrocarbon exporters in the world. Moreover, according to the experts, Qatar’s oil reserves were bolstered by colossal gas reserves thanks to which the country is now occupying the first place in the world in terms of per-capita GDP. That’s why Qatar’s puny military potential does not prevent it from influencing the situation in the region on a scale comparable to Saudi Arabia’s.
However, before we answer the question of how Qatar could influence the situation in Syria right now, when Bashar al-Assad is receiving assistance from not only its Lebanese and Iranian allies but Russia as well, we should turn our attention to the statement made by Major General Igor Konashenkov, the official representative of Russian MOD, made on October 21 and which at first glance appears wholly unrelated to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey.
–Our electronic intelligence systems have intercepted information that several commanders of major units from the al-Nusra terror group have began negotiations with ISIL commanders to unite forces in order to stem the advance by the Syrian government forces, Konashenkov said.
Retired Colonel Semyon Bagdasarov, the director of the Center for the Study of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Countries, believes that the situation in Syria, in spite of Russian airstrikes, Assad army offensive against islamist positions, and the Vienna negotiations scheduled for October 23 between Russian, US, Saudi, and Turkish foreign officials, is only growing more complicated. Therefore Bagdasarov is not seeing anything comical in Qatari statements.
–Qatar has Franco-German Roland SAMs, which are mobile systems designed to provide close air defense to ground troops and to shoot down maneuvering aerial targets at low and medium altitudes. Therefore if groups supported by Qatar are being struck by Russian and Syrian aircraft, Qatar might decide to send these weapons to Syria. For example, deploy them on the territory controlled by al-Nusra. Moreover, Qatar has Stinger, Blowpipe, and Strela-2 man-portable SAMs, and a large quantity of Milan and HOT ATGMs.
Saudi Arabia has Redeye and Stinger SAMs and TOW ATGMs. Moreover, Turkey is also playing an active role supporting the islamists with weapons and even personnel, including al-Nusra.
What could Qatar and Saudi Arabia do to deprive the Syrian forces of their superiority? Destroy armored vehicles and create a threat to aircraft, including our Sukhois, since the Su-25 attack aircraft aren’t flying at high altitudes.
Right now the situation in Syria is growing more complicated, and even Qatar could influence the situation. Many of our experts were saying that now Russia will give Assad’s forces air support and it will be all over, there will be a breakthrough and the islamists will all run to Europe in panic. But as we can see, the offensive is moving slowly, there have been no stunning victories. One has to keep in mind the war will continue for a long time and one should prepare for it in earnest now that we’ve decided to provide assistance. It’s not going to boil down to a mixed aviation regiment bombing islamists for a month or two and then going home.
–In your view, can al-Nusra and ISIL unify in order to present a single front against government forces?
–That statement ranks up there with “600 militants carried out an orderly withdrawal to Europe.” Al-Nusra and IS have serious disagreements. Once upon a time IS wanted to be al-Qaeda’s representatives in Syria, but al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri told them to go back to Iraq and leave the Syrian front to al-Nusra.
Naturally, they could unite for a short period of time in order to conduct military operations on a specific portion of the front, but not in the longer term. All such attempts have ended in bloodshed.
–So you don’t believe the October 23 meeting in Vienna between Lavrov and Kerry will be successful?
–I’m unhappy to see that Iran’s representative is not present at the talks, and I don’t understand how one could reach any agreement without their presence. Even though we are talking about helping Assad, Tehran only last year spent $3.6 billion on supporting Syria’s economy. Conducting such negotiations without Iran means undertaking a responsibility of some sort. But Tehran could later say that since they weren’t represented, it’s no longer their problem.
Syrian international journalist Abbas Juma says that theoretically the Islamic State, which is supported by Qatar, and al-Nusra, which is aided by Saudi Arabia, could operate in unison on some sectors of the front.
–But that would require a major effort by Qataris and Saudis on Syria’s territory. In other words, there would have to be a serious intervention by these two countries (and perhaps this is what Qatar’s deputy minister had in mind) to allow them to work with their “subordinates” directly on the spot. But it’s not something that can happen in a few days.
Right now the relationship between the two factions is tense, there are many new recruits in their ranks which don’t understand what is happening, have no contact with the center, and operate only under the control of their field commanders. Therefore some time will pass before they receive the new orders to make peace, and in the meantime Russian aviation and Assad’s ground forces with the support of Lebanese and Iranian allies could greatly change the frontline configuration.
But! One cannot but be alarmed by the trend toward unification of the so-called armed opposition, specifically Ahrar ash-Sham and Sukur ash-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and other smaller groups. It’s been more than two weeks since the Russian operation begun, and since then the pleas to unify by the commanders of what is often called, not wholly correctly, the Free Syrian Army, have intensified.
By the admission by many Arabists and military experts, that force could in some respects surpass even the Islamic State. Since these units are to some extent formed from local inhabitants which understand the terrain. They are easy to program by claiming that they are fighting for their own land, which makes them motivated and aggressive in combat.
If such a unification process continues, I’m sure that Qatari and Saudi aid will soon follow because they always help those who are the most destructive. One also must keep in mind the Turkish factor. No matter what anyone says, Turkey is a US satellite. And just as the US is helping the islamists by airdropping weapons and ammunition, so do the Turks by providing support to radical groups in Syria at all levels. As a reminder, Turkey’s Prime Minister Davutoglu recently said of Assad’s visit to Moscow that it would be best if he stayed there forever. Thus the Turks once again showed their true face and demonstrated they are indifferent to the fate of the Syrian people. They will do everything possible to ensure further escalation, both on the official and cover level.