Despite threats from Iran to withdraw financial aid and training for militants, Hamas has now reportedly ordered the majority of its staff in Damascus to evacuate the organization’s headquarters by next week, aiming to leave behind only a “nominal presence” in Syria, which has hosted Hamas since the group was expelled from Jordan in the late 1990s. This latest move from Hamas comes amid a gradual divestment of Syrian assets over the past few months.
More importantly, Hamas has undertaken the decision to evacuate Syria under pressure from Turkey and Qatar, both of which are leading support for the Syrian National Council (SNC) that is currently dominated by Sunni Islamists. Meanwhile, Turkey is helping to smuggle arms to the Free Syrian Army, whereas Qatar was the first nation in the Gulf area to close its embassy in Damascus back in July, and is likewise reportedly supplying weapons to Syrian rebels.
Although Saudi Arabia and other Arab League members (except Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon) have joined in the condemnation of Assad’s conduct and Syria’s membership in the Arab League has accordingly been suspended, Qatar’s stance stands out amongst Arab states as far more proactive and much more along the lines of present Turkish policy towards Syria.
Of course, Qatar has further been influential in drawing Arab public attention to Assad’s crackdown on protesters in Syria via al-Jazeera broadcasts, with well-known Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has his own show on the channel, calling on Assad to step down because he was supposedly being “held prisoner by his entourage and the [Alawite] sect.”
We find a similar active approach on the part of Turkey and Qatar regarding Libya, albeit differing to a certain degree. The two countries backed the anti-Gaddafi forces during the civil war. Turkey played an important part in enforcing an arms embargo on ports controlled by the Gaddafi forces, as well as in implementing the no-fly zone.
While Qatar similarly participated in enforcing the no-fly zone, the Gulf state also sent troops as military advisors for rebel forces, and frequently held meetings with officials from the National Transitional Council (NTC). Again, there is a contrast with the more reserved approach of Saudi Arabia and most other Arab League states, although it should be pointed out that the United Arab Emirates deployed a dozen aircraft to assist in the NATO-led mission against Gaddafi’s regime.
In the aftermath of the overthrow of Gaddafi, Turkey and Qatar have also attempted to increase their influence in Libya, but Turkey’s methods have been more subtle and welcomed. Qatar has been circumventing the NTC to provide support for Islamist militias that are operating independently of the NTC’s control. Hence, the NTC has rebuked Qatar for excessive interference in internal affairs on more than one occasion.
On the other hand, Turkey has sought to gain a foothold in Libya by cultivating cultural and educational ties for the moment. Thus, Turkey has offered to renovate and restore a prominent Ottoman-era mosque in Libya. The interim Libyan government is also seeking Turkish help to train schoolteachers and rewrite school textbooks to portray Ottoman Islamic rule over the area in a positive light. Accordingly, the Minister of Education Suleiman Sahili declared in a recent interview, “We want to see Turkey on our soil once more.”
Incidentally, Today’s Zaman (the English-language Turkish daily),which noted Turkey’s initiative to renovate and restore an Ottoman-era mosque in Libya, also reported on a request from Gaza to the Turkish government for assistance in reconstructing several mosques. That Qatar and Turkey share sympathy for Hamas is undeniable. The joint pressure on Hamas to evacuate Syria has already been noted.
Going further back, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has defended Hamas from charges of being a terrorist organization, and is allegedly planning to provide $300 million for the group, while Qatar attempted to hold a summit in Doha in the immediate aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in support of Hamas.
Furthermore, al-Jazeera tried to undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA) and bolster Hamas by releasing the “Palestine Papers,” which, on a side note, exposed the inconsistency of the PA’s public and private stances regarding negotiations with Israel.
The Palestine Papers showed that in private PA officials appeared to be willing to discuss compromises on matters like the “right of return,” but when this detail was made public, the PA angrily denied that such discussions had taken place. The affair thus illustrated how the PA is still failing to make an active effort to cultivate an attitude of reconciliation among the Palestinian population at large by means of media and education.
In any case, the emerging picture appears to be one of a new Sunni bloc led by Qatar and Turkey, currently including Hamas as a member. It is evident that this bloc is in opposition to the Iranian-led “resistance” axis that includes Syria and Hezbollah. More of a gray area is how this bloc will relate to Saudi Arabia, which has since Gaddafi’s fall followed a “hands-off” policy towards Libya and is, as we have seen, more reserved in its approach towards Syria.
On three counts, the interests of this bloc and those of Saudi Arabia have overlapped. First, there is the common opposition to Iran. Second, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have deployed troops in Bahrain to suppress predominantly Shi’a protests against the Sunni minority regime, while Turkey (like al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel) has more or less kept a diplomatic silence on the issue. Third, in eastern Saudi Arabia, where security forces have cracked down on Shi’a protests, Turkey and Qatar have refrained from condemnation, and al-Jazeera’s coverage is clearly biased against the demonstrations. In both cases, the protests have been portrayed as Iranian plots to stir up trouble.
Thus, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and this Turkey-Qatar bloc could be described as ambivalent at present.
Observers would therefore do well to watch closely the evolving situation in Egypt. With Islamists on the rise in that country, it is possible that new tensions will emerge between Saudi Arabia and the Turkey-Qatar bloc, especially since the former has for a long time supported the status-quo of military rule that existed under Hosni Mubarak, who maintained very close ties with the Saudis, while Qatar and Turkey might throw their weight behind a dismantling of military rule and a transition to a government potentially dominated by Islamists.