Jun 8, 2012 | 10:00 GMT

5 mins read

In Qatar, Possible Retaliation for Syrian Opposition Support

In Qatar, Possible Retaliation for Syrian Opposition Support

Sunni Bahraini lawmaker Salman bin Hamad al-Shaikh claimed that sleeper cells run by Syrian and Iranian intelligence were responsible for the May 28 nursery fire at the Villaggio Mall in Doha, Qatar, which killed 19 people, including 13 children. A Stratfor source in the Qatari government said a Lebanese Shiite was in custody on suspicion of arson, but this allegation remains unconfirmed. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates reportedly has expelled 1,000 Lebanese Shia for suspected ties to Hezbollah. 

The detention of the Lebanese Shiite suggests that Hezbollah, a proxy group for the Syrian and Iranian regimes, was involved in the Villaggio fire. So far, there is no evidence to confirm such involvement. But recent actions and statements from Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which supports opposition rebels in Syria — are anomalous. Given the tensions in the region, Iran and Syria may be using proxies to induce the GCC to end its support for the rebels.

In May, The Washington Post reported that GCC states were funneling weapons and money to Syrian rebels via Lebanon. Al-Shaikh claimed that Syria had activated a sleeper cell to pressure the Qatari regime into halting this support. According to the lawmaker, this pressure included May 29 fires at the Qatar Aeronautical College and a girls' school, as well as a fire at Doha's Souq Waqif market on May 30. Since June 4, 17 cars in Bahrain have been set on fire. (No one has claimed responsibility, but in the past Bahraini opposition groups have advocated the use of arson as a resistance tactic.)

By implicating Syria and Iran, Bahrain creates solidarity in the GCC for Manama's campaign against Iranian interference and Tehran's support for Bahraini Shiites. The Qatari government officially denied media reports suggesting that the fire was an act of arson, terrorism or militancy. But even if it were an act of terrorism, Qatar would deny it. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as fellow GCC members Kuwait and Oman, have tried to maintain working relationships with Iran. If Doha acknowledged a Syrian-Iranian-backed terrorist attack on Qatari soil, it would necessitate a breach in relations with Tehran. Naturally, additional attacks would hurt Qatari-Iranian relations. For now, Doha and Tehran would prefer to use militant proxies to pressure each other, a strategy that gives the countries enough plausible deniability to maintain cordial ties.

Shiite Expulsion

In contrast to Doha's official stance, a Qatari government official told Stratfor that authorities suspect the fire resulted from arson and that someone tampered with the mall sprinklers prior to the fire. The official also said a Lebanese Shiite was in custody for his alleged role in the incident, but these allegations are uncorroborated.

Notably, reports surfaced June 6 that Abu Dhabi recently expelled 1,000 Lebanese Shia. According to a local news report, those expelled were forced to sign confessions that they were affiliated with Hezbollah or that they conducted "illegal security acts." 

The reports are intriguing for several reasons. Until now, there has been no indication of friction between the UAE government and its Lebanese Shiite community. The United Arab Emirates has also experienced a recent spate of fires, but there has been no suggestion these were deliberate or connected to foreign involvement. While the United Arab Emirates and Iran have sources of contention — especially the dispute over the three Persian Gulf islands, Abu Musa and the Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb — the two countries are close trade partners. (Dubai and Iran are especially close.) Moreover, an estimated 400,000 Iranians live and work in the United Arab Emirates, not to mention an estimated 100,000 Lebanese Shia. Abu Dhabi always calibrates UAE relations with Tehran and would not want to aggravate tensions without a good reason.

Escalating Proxy Conflict?

The ejection of Lebanese Shia in the United Arab Emirates, the accusations from the Bahraini lawmaker, the spate of fires in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar's allegedly contradictory stance point to possible retaliatory measures over the GCC's support for the Syrian opposition. The GCC, particularly Qatar, has been vociferous in such support and has repeatedly called for Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step down. In addition, GCC states recently warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon or Syria, an especially damaging measure since Gulf tourists contribute significantly to the economies of the Levant.

Underlying the Syria issue is the GCC states' fear of an ascendant Iran and its expanded influence in Iraq. GCC states see the turmoil in Syria as a unique opportunity to contain Iran's regional reach; the replacement of the Alawite regime with a Sunni-led government would be optimal for GCC strategy.

It would therefore make sense that Syria and its power patron, Iran, would be seeking a way to respond to the GCC's arming of Syrian rebels. A logical response would be the use of proxy groups, including Hezbollah and its network of militants, to demonstrate Iran and Syria's intolerance for GCC support for the Syrian opposition. This option mitigates the chances of open conflict that could trigger a more conventional military response. Dubai's economic relationship with Tehran may save it from being targeted by proxies, but attacks in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh and other Saudi cities, and Kuwait are possible. More trouble in Bahrain also is conceivable.  

Notably, Turkey has alleged that Damascus has used proxies as retaliation for Ankara's support for the Syrian opposition. According to Ankara, Syria has allowed Kurdistan Workers' Party rebels to use Syrian soil as a base to launch attacks in Turkey.

If in fact Syria and Iran were using proxies to counter GCC support, an initial countermeasure of GCC governments would be sweeps of their foreign Shiite populations — similar to what the United Arab Emirates is doing now. Diplomatically, Doha would likely moderate its rhetoric toward Syria, thus signaling a willingness to step back from supplying rebels with weapons and cash. This does not mean Qatar will stop arming or funding the rebels; rather, Doha would become more circumspect in the future. In any case, the proxy conflicts appear to be escalating between Qatar and the GCC and Syria and Iran.

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