Updated Oct 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Qatar touts role as Western mediator as Hamas ties are scrutinized

Biden shakes hands with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, in January 2022. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Qatar says it has facilitated the reunification of four Ukrainian minors separated from their families by Russia's invasion, marking a rare diplomatic breakthrough between Kyiv and Moscow.

Why it matters: Qatar's unique role as a mediator between the West and its adversaries has come under new scrutiny amid Israel's war with Hamas, which maintains a political office in Doha.

  • Qatar — which President Biden designated as a major non-NATO ally last year — has labeled Israel "solely responsible" for Hamas' deadly terrorist attack, drawing outrage from supporters of Israel.
  • The tiny Gulf nation has also dismissed calls to shut down Hamas' bureau in Doha, positioning itself as an intermediary able to facilitate dialogue with all sides — including to help negotiate the release of hostages held in Gaza.

Zoom in: The effort to reunite the Ukrainian families began with shuttle diplomacy by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who visited both Kyiv and Moscow over the summer.

  • The identities of the minors — who are between the ages of two and 17 — were confirmed through documentation and interviews and verified by all parties, according to a diplomat briefed on the process.
  • The minors were hosted at the Qatari embassy in Moscow and transported to Ukraine through varying routes and methods, including by diplomatic convoy, train and privately chartered plane, the diplomat said.

Zoom out: Ukraine says more than 19,000 children have been forcibly transferred or deported to Russia or Russian-occupied territories since February 2022, when the current invasion began.

  • In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the alleged abduction of Ukrainian children.
  • "At points this agreement was seen as unattainable, yet we stand today proud of what was accomplished and hope that it can lead to more families welcoming their children back," Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari told Axios.
  • Neither the Russian nor Ukrainian foreign ministries immediately responded to requests for comment.

Between the lines: The U.S. has relied on Qatar to maintain backchannels and broker major diplomatic agreements with adversaries in recent years, including the release of five Americans from Iran in a prisoner exchange last month.

  • The deal led to the transfer of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets to a bank account in Qatar; the Biden administration has faced bipartisan pressure to re-freeze those funds in the wake of the Hamas attack, given Iran's support for the Palestinian militant group.
  • A top Biden official told congressional Democrats last week that the U.S. and Qatar have an informal agreement not to move the money "anytime soon."

The big picture: While meeting with Al Thani in Doha last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed appreciation for Qatar's work to secure the release of the hostages in Gaza — calling Doha a "very close partner" on a broad range of issues.

  • Qatar in 2021 agreed to formally represent U.S. interests in Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban, whose leaders also maintained a political office in Doha during their insurgent years.
  • Asked about shutting down Hamas' office in Doha, Al Thani stressed that the bureau was set up "as a way of communicating and bringing peace and calm into the region, not to instigate any war."
  • Blinken did not disclose whether he's asked Qatar to close the office, but said he's been "making it clear in all of my conversations throughout this [regional] trip that there can be no more business as usual with Hamas."
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