By Elizabeth Dickinson in Foreign Policy
ABU DHABI and DOHA — Behind a glittering mall near Doha’s city center sits the quiet restaurant where Hossam used to run his Syrian rebel brigade. At the battalion’s peak in 2012 and 2013, he had 13,000 men under his control near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. “Part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they are loyal to me,” he said over sweet tea and sugary pastries this spring. “I had a good team to fight.”
Hossam, a middle-aged Syrian expat, owns several restaurants throughout Doha, Qatar, catering mostly to the country’s upper crust. The food is excellent, and at night the tables are packed with well-dressed Qataris, Westerners, and Arabs. Some of his revenue still goes toward supporting brigades and civilians with humanitarian goods — blankets, food, even cigarettes.
He insists that he has stopped sending money to the battle, for now. His brigade’s funds came, at least in part, from Qatar, he says, under the discretion of then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah. But the injection of cash was ad hoc: Dozens of other brigades like his received initial start-up funding, and only some continued to receive Qatari support as the months wore on. When the funds ran out in mid-2013, his fighters sought support elsewhere. “Money plays a big role in the FSA, and on that front, we didn’t have,” he explained.
Hossam is a peripheral figure in a vast Qatari network of Islamist-leaning proxies that spans former Syrian generals, Taliban insurgents, Somali Islamists, and Sudanese rebels. He left home in 1996 after more than a decade under pressure from the Syrian regime for his sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of his friends were killed in a massacre of the group in Hama province in 1982 by then President Hafez al-Assad. He finally found refuge here in Qatar and built his business and contacts slowly. Mostly, he laid low; Doha used to be quite welcoming to the young President Bashar al-Assad and his elegant wife, who were often spotted in the high-end fashion boutiques before the revolt broke out in 2011.
When the Syrian war came and Qatar dropped Assad, Hossam joined an expanding pool of middlemen whom Doha called upon to carry out its foreign policy of supporting the Syrian opposition. Because there were no established rebels when the uprising started, Qatar backed the upstart plans of expats and businessmen who promised they could rally fighters and guns. Hossam, like many initial rebel backers, had planned to devote his own savings to supporting the opposition. Qatar’s donations made it possible to think bigger.
In recent months, Qatar’s Rolodex of middlemen like Hossam has proved both a blessing and a curse for the United States. On one hand, Washington hasn’t shied away from calling on Doha’s connections when it needs them: Qatar orchestrated the prisoner swap that saw U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl freed in exchange for five Taliban prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. And it ran the negotiations with al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, that freed American writer Peter Theo Curtis in August. “Done,” Qatari intelligence chief Ghanim Khalifa al-Kubaisi reportedly texted a contact — adding a thumbs-up emoticon — after the release was completed.
But that same Qatari network has also played a major role in destabilizing nearly every trouble spot in the region and in accelerating the growth of radical and jihadi factions. The results have ranged from bad to catastrophic in the countries that are the beneficiaries of Qatari aid: Libya is mired in a war between proxy-funded militias, Syria’s opposition has been overwhelmed by infighting and overtaken by extremists, and Hamas’s intransigence has arguably helped prolong the Gaza Strip’s humanitarian plight.
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