DOHA: Qatar’s foreign minister ruled out yesterday the possibility of reopening an embassy in Damascus, in line with some other Gulf countries, calling Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad a war criminal. “Normalization (of relations) with the Syrian regime at this stage is the normalization of a person involved in war crimes, and this should not be acceptable,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said at a Doha press conference. He said the reasons why Assad – who was elected unopposed in 2000 and has stayed in power during nearly eight years of civil war – was excluded from the international community are still in place.
Sheikh Mohammed added that Damascus under Assad should not be allowed back into the Arab League – its membership was suspended in 2011 – as “the Syrian people are still under bombardment… by the Syrian regime”. His comments come after Gulf neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced late last month they reopened their Damascus embassies. The UAE’s foreign minister Anwar Gargash tweeted that his country was doing so in part because of the influence of Iran and one of Qatar’s strongest allies, Turkey, in Syria.
Tehran has been a staunch supporter of Assad’s government and has expanded its military footprint in Syria throughout the course of the conflict. That move also emphasized the foreign policy differences between the three Gulf states. For the past 19 months Qatar has been in a deep diplomatic dispute with the UAE and Bahrain, in part over the direction of Doha’s regional foreign policy in recent years.
Qatar has been instrumental in the Syrian civil war supplying weapons to rebel groups, according to institutions such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Syria’s opposition leader Nasr Al-Hariri has pleaded with Arab leaders not to rebuild relation with Assad as his government now controls almost two-thirds of the country following military backing from Russia and Iran. Sheikh Mohammed was speaking at a press conference announcing Qatar had agreed to commit $20 million to an African Union fund to help cover costs to return illegal African refugees stranded in crisis-hit Libya in north Africa to their home countries.
AU chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat said the money was vitally needed. “I hope this is the beginning for a solution to a very, very difficult issue,” he said. “Since last year, we have brought back 30,000 migrants from Libya to their own countries, but the number is bigger than that.” The issue of migrants departing from Libya, particular to Europe, has become a major political and social headache for several countries. Italy’s interior ministry said this month that some 23,270 people landed in Italy in 2018, most of whom had set off from Libya. – Agencies