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A week of chaos and crisis in the Middle East

People attend the funerals on Friday of the victims of Wednesday’s attack at the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum, in Tehran, Iran. (TIMA AGENCY/REUTERS)

It was an earth-shaking week in the Middle East, one that featured a crisis in the Persian Gulf, a terror attack in Tehran, and a move toward independence by the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S.-backed rebels – spearheaded by other Kurds – are closing in on the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria, their advance aided by coalition aircraft that have increasingly targeted the official Syrian army as it advances toward the same city.

The past five days have seen old calculations shattered, and new ones emerge. In tiny Qatar, NATO ally Turkey is deploying troops with the unstated message that it could defend the peninsula from invasion by Saudi Arabia, another key Western ally that U.S. President Donald Trump honoured last month with his first foreign visit.

Read more: U.S. urges Gulf states to ease Qatar blockade while Trump says country must stop funding terrorism

No one seems certain whether this is all part of Mr. Trump’s grand design to remake the Middle East – as he appeared to claim in tweets this week about the Qatar crisis – or whether other actors are setting the agenda, taking advantage of a moment when America is too distracted by domestic turmoil to play its usual role of policeman to the oil-rich region.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Friday for Saudi Arabia and its allies to ease their blockade of Qatar, and to avoid further escalation of the crisis, it marked the first real attempt to stake out a U.S. position on the crisis, other than through Mr. Trump’s Twitter account. And the President seemed to contradict Mr. Tillerson barely an hour later by again embracing the Saudi narrative that Qatar funded terrorism “at a very high level.”

“I don’t think this [Trump] administration is really thinking strategically. I don’t think it’s in control of its foreign policy, if it has one. So these other parties are taking advantage of the leadership crisis and asserting themselves.” said Khalil Jahshan, director of the Arab Centre in Washington, D.C., a think tank focused on Middle East affairs. “I would hope that, deep down, cooler heads will prevail – but I’m not optimistic.”

One hundred and forty days into Mr. Trump’s presidency, there is dangerous uncertainty in volatile corners of the world. After a NATO summit during which Mr. Trump is reported to have personally deleted a line from a speech that would have restated the U.S. commitment to the alliance’s mutual-defence clause (though he reversed course and did so on Friday), no one is completely sure how the U.S. would react to new Russian military moves in Eastern Europe.

In East Asia, Mr. Trump’s bouncing back and forth between warnings and praise for Kim Jong-un leaves the region wondering how he plans to deal with an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

The extent of the uncertainty about Mr. Trump’s plan for the Middle East – or his lack of one – was highlighted on Thursday when Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani turned down an invitation from Mr. Trump to discuss his country’s dispute with its neighbours in the White House, saying he could not leave his country while it was under “blockade.”

Some believe the emir, whose country plays host to a massive American air base that is crucial to U.S. and coalition operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, was essentially saying that he feared a coup or invasion while he was out of the country. And he didn’t trust that Mr. Trump would keep either from happening.

Qatar – a wealthy Persian Gulf peninsula with just 300,000 citizens (and seven or eight times that many foreign residents) – has become the unlikely fulcrum of the fast-moving events across the region. The Middle East’s wild week began with Qatar’s neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt, cutting all diplomatic and travel links with Qatar.

The stated aim was to punish Qatar for allegedly supporting terrorism around the region. But the real irritants were the Qatari royal family’s independent foreign policy line – which supported the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring across the region – and the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera news channel, which has taken a populist editorial line that unnerves the region’s autocrats.

Those concerns date back at least as far as the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. But until this week, Qatar was considered untouchable because of the U.S. military presence on its soil.

So why is payback happening now? The key appears to have been Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia late last month, where he claimed to have built an alliance of 50 Sunni Muslim nations against what he called “terrorism and the ideology that drives it.” The alliance – sealed by an agreement for Saudi Arabia to buy $110-billion (U.S.) in American weapons – would also seek to further isolate Iran, the region’s main Shia power, which Mr. Trump accused of funding and arming terrorist groups across the region.

Qatar, which has businesslike relations with Iran, and friendly ties with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, seemed to stand outside the pact. That, plus what Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, called the Trump administration’s “lack of expertise on Gulf relations,” gave the Saudis and their allies an opening to settle an old score with Qatar.

“It seems the Saudis and the Emiratis, who are the main drivers behind this, felt out the Trump administration during the visit, and they saw a sort of green light,” Ms. Aboueldahab said.

Those close to the U.S. President say Mr. Trump tends to echo the words of whomever he spoke to last, an impression confirmed by his tweets in the first hours of the Qatar crisis. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he wrote on Tuesday. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference [sic] was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

Mr. Trump’s tweets were roundly criticized by even his fellow Republicans – as well as the Pentagon, which took pains to praise Qatar the same day for playing host to the U.S. airbase, and for “their enduring commitment to regional security.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel went further, warning a day later against the “Trumpification” of international relations. “I am extremely concerned about the dramatic escalation of the situation and the consequences for the entire region,” he told the Handelsblatt newspaper on Wednesday, ahead of a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister. “Such a Trumpification of relations with one another is particularly dangerous in a region that is already rife with crises.”

What initially looked like a dispute between several elephants and a mouse, with Qatar expected to quickly cave in the face of pressure from its larger neighbours, has grown into something potentially much more dangerous, with Turkey and Iran coming to the aid of their tiny and suddenly significant friend.

Turkey, which was already building a military base in Qatar – its first since the days of the Ottoman Empire – rushed a parliamentary vote approving the deployment of troops there, a move that insiders say got Riyadh’s attention and made the Saudis rethink attempting to depose Emir Tamim by force.

Iran, meanwhile, offered to step up food exports to Qatar to help the peninsula weather the partial blockade imposed by its other neighbours. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flew to Ankara on Wednesday for consultations with his Turkish counterpart.

Turkey and Iran have different motivations for backing Qatar, and they are violently at odds with each other over the fate of Syria. But while many believe Mr. Trump has no Middle East policy at all, Ankara and Tehran are united in their belief that there is a plot developing – hatched during Mr. Trump’s visit to Riyadh – that they haven’t been invited to join.

Turkey was already furious with the U.S. for co-operating in the push toward Raqqa with the YPG Kurdish militia – a force Ankara calls a “terrorist” group affiliated with the PKK group that Turkey is battling on its own territory – when Iraq’s Kurds (who also enjoy U.S. protection) announced this week that they would hold a Sept. 25 independence referendum. It’s a step Turkey worries will incite more unrest among its own restive Kurdish population.

Turkey’s foreign ministry warned on Friday that a Kurdish independence vote would be a “terrible mistake,” declaring that the territorial integrity of Iraq was a “fundamental principle” of Turkish policy.

“There is a different game being played here,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an audience in Ankara. “We have not yet been able to determine those behind this game yet, but we need to disappoint those waiting for an opportunity to meddle in the region.”

Iran appears to see the week’s events, including a rare and sophisticated terror attack Wednesday in Tehran, through the same lens. Though the Islamic State group quickly claimed responsibility for the assault – which left 12 people dead after gunmen and a suicide bomber struck both the country’s parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic – Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards pointed the finger of blame at Saudi Arabia, and at Mr. Trump’s trip to Riyadh.

“This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the U.S. President and the backward [Saudi] leaders who support terrorists,” read a statement carried by Iranian media. Ominously, the statement vowed that the Revolutionary Guards would “never allow the blood of innocents to be spilt without revenge.”

Mourners at Friday’s funerals for those killed in the attacks added the chant “Death to Saudi Arabia!” to the more standard cry of “Death to America!” as they marched through Tehran.

“There is confusion everywhere now – in Russia and Europe, in Syria, and in the U.S.,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Qatar University. “We are living in a very interesting moment in the history of the world.”

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