x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Doha's Four Seasons Hotel Tea Lounge a painful exile for Syrians in Qatar

Many Syrian rebel leaders and businessmen have passed through Doha since the uprising against Bashar Al Assad began - but a coherent, unified opposition remains painfully elusive. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Doha

DOHA // No one at the Tea Lounge in Doha's Four Seasons Hotel seems to have come to Qatar to take in the sights. An exiled Somali shuffles documents back and forth to the man across from him, dominating the conversation with quick talk. An Australian businessman whispers his order to a waitress, then begins to speak in hushed tones on his mobile phone.

"I don't dare go outside," says a woman with a nervous giggle into her phone, as a pall of cigar smoke envelops several men deep in discussion at another table. "All of the meetings are inside the hotel."

Last year, the opponents of Muammar Qaddafi were said to have plotted and planned in the Tea Lounge and nearby lobby. These days, many of the people on its stiff, Victorian-style chairs and couches are Syrian.

An assortment of opposition leaders and businessmen are passing through Doha, hoping to attract Qatar's arsenal of quickly-deployed cash and considerable diplomatic clout to their cause.

The stakes are higher than ever. Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, has denied reports that his country is providing weapons to the opposition in Syria - but few here doubt that his country is providing financial backing and non-lethal aid.

Security sources in Doha say that could mean everything from cash and military trainers to incentives for leading Syrian officials thought to be considering whether to defect. Another highly sought prize for any aspiring opposition leader is an appearance on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite television station.

Last year, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition coalition based in Istanbul, enjoyed Qatar's "most favoured" status. But it has failed to win broad-based international support and so the Tea Lounge and lobbies of Doha's five-star hotels are once again bustling crossroads for opponents of president Bashar Al Assad - and the diplomats and scholars who scurry to meet them.

Western diplomats and analysts are exasperated that opposition groups have failed to form a coalition that everyone can support.

"Conflicting personalities are a natural occurrence within the Syrian opposition, as elsewhere," says Peter Harling, a Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. "What is truly problematic is how uninspiring and shallow these politicians have been in formulating an actual vision for the future."

Meetings among opposition groups have often ended in acrimony, most notably in Cairo in early July, where fist fights broke out.

Mr Al Assad's foes abroad are divided, too. Governments, former diplomats and a variety of experts have all boasted of possessing the key to reconciling the opposition's differences. The governments of Bulgaria, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have all made public bids to forge a consensus.

Non-governmental organisations and think tanks have also entered the fray, including the US Institute for Peace and the German government's The Day After project.

Most recently, a technical committee has sprung up in Egypt, resurrected from the ashes of the Cairo meeting with the help of mediators at the Brookings Institution in Doha. The group seemed to gain a nod of legitimacy last month when the United Nations' special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, met them in Cairo. The SNC declined, however, to send representatives.

Amid mixed messages from the world's power capitals, the mood at the Tea Lounge is almost aggrieved. Patrons shift in their chairs in the most painful kind of exile: seated in luxury watching hell unfold in Syria.

Sadruddin Al Bayanouni, the chairman of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and an SNC member, expressed the exasperation when asked last month by fellow Islamists at a conference in Doha why the opposition couldn't come together. "The opposition is not one bloc and can never be," he said. "This is no justification for the world to stand by and watch these massacres."

To Ammar Abdulhamid - a prominent opposition member in the United States who is adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies - exile is the wrong place to look for Syrians around whose charisma, political ingenuity and force of intellect an opposition will somehow coalesce.

"Syria's future leaders are in Syria," he says. "The political process will be determined by Syrian actors, despite all the dabblers and the dabbling taking place."

Also pervading the frenetic attempts at political brokering is a gathering sense of impotence in the face of the killing. Rebels live a hand-to-mouth existence, fighting however they can. Individual backers in the Gulf who have the connections to channel money or supplies into Syria can be as powerful as official opposition coalitions.

"The SNC is struggling for relevance, and that declining relevance is muted by what's happening on the ground," said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution in Doha.

For now, tea at the Four Seasons tastes bitter, and despite the cheery music and sweets, smiles are rare.

edickinson@thenational.ae