Qatar wades into the Sudanese revolt

The government of Qatar is well known for its forays into foreign policy, and is accused by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia of buying the votes in last year's Somali election. Now it has turned its attention to Sudan.

Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, has his back to the wall. The regime he has run for nearly a quarter of a century is facing its toughest test.  Protests, which began after a doubling of energy prices, have been transformed into calls for the president to resign. Even the normally quiescent opposition parties have begun to support this demand. They have been joined by the mercurial Hassan al-Turabi, who once supported the President.

Dozens of protesters have been killed by security forces loyal to the regime and as many as a thousand have been arrested. "The army is not involved, nor are the police," an activist told the New Statesman. Ali - as he asked to be known - said the regular forces are drawn from and live with the community around Khartoum. They are not actively supporting al-Bashir.

Instead the president is relying on the notorious Central Reserve Police, which is loyal only to the regime. "They come from the poorest Northern Sudanese villages, just like the President and his key adviser, Nafie Ali Nafie. The Central Reserve are well paid and serve the ruling National Islamic Front," Ali said.

Qatar is reported to have now entered the fray, bringing badly needed financial support for President al-Bashir. The well-connected Sudanese website, Sudan Tribune, says that the Qatari government is shoring up government reserves with a promise to transfer £1 billion to the Sudanese Central Bank. The aim is to stabilise exchange rates and curb the fall of the Sudanese pound.

The government of Qatar is well known for its forays into foreign policy. Using its immense oil wealth, it has supported Sunni causes across the Middle East. The revolts in Syria, Egypt and Libya owe much to Qatari backing.  The Emir of Qatar has also played a key role in buttressing Eritrea, despite the country's abusive human rights record.

Qatar is accused by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia of buying the votes in last year's Somali election. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took over the presidency in September 2012. The Group's report to the UN Security Council this July stated that: "Sources indicate that the President received several million dollars from Qatar which was used to buy off political support. Important carriers of cash donations from Qatar include Fahad Yasin and Abdi Aynte, two former journalists from the Doha based news organisation Al-Jazeera."

Critics of Qatar suggest that the government has used its oil wealth to gain influence far beyond the Arabic world. Dr. Anne Bartlett of the University of San Francisco argues that few can ignore what she describes as "Qatar's spiderlike web of influence."

Certainly both Paris and London have welcomed and encouraged vast sums of Qatari investment in their countries. As the Daily Mail declared accurately, if a little crudely: "How Qatar bought Britain".

From the glittering Shard, which now towers over the London skyline, to the sewers beneath the capital, Qatar has an interest in vast swathes of the British economy.

There are suggestions that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who came to power in July, wishes to chart a new, less active foreign policy.

This would mark a considerable change for the government of the tiny state, but it is hard to observe in Qatari support for the al-Bashir regime.  The Emir's father backed a loser in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps the current Emir is making the same mistake in Sudan. 

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir meets with Qatari state minister for foreign affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud. Image: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.