Optimists see hopeful signs that the Middle East may be exiting from a dark tunnel of violence, civil war, sectarian strife, and debilitating regional rivalries.The Islamic State (IS) is on the cusp of territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia may be groping for an exit from its devastating military intervention in Yemen. Gulf states are embarking on economic and social reform aimed at preparing for the end of oil.
Haltingly, Gulf states may be forced to find a face-saving solution to their more than three-month-old crisis that has pitted a UAE-Saudi led alliance against Qatar and there may even be an effort to dial down tension between the kingdom and Iran.
Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza said it was willing to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the strip and move towards long overdue elections.
At first glance, reasons for optimism. But don’t hold your breath. Optimists base their hopes on shifting sands and tentative suggestions that protagonists may be looking for ways out of the malaise.
Yet, none of the indicators involve actions that would tackle root causes of the Middle East multiple conflicts and problems. In fact, some of the solutions tossed around amount to little more than window dressing, while others set the stage for a next phase of conflict and strife.
Talks between the feuding Palestinian factions have repeatedly failed. It was not clear whether Hamas would be ready as part of a deal to put its armed wing under Mr. Abbas’s control – a key demand of the Palestinian president that the Islamists have so far rejected. It also remains to be seen how Israel would respond. Israel together with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Beyond Palestine, the contours of future conflict are already discernible. If Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines.
Disputes over territory, power and resources between and among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds that fuelled the rise of IS in Iraq are resurfacing with its demise. In a twist of irony, a recent poll showed Sunnis were for the first time more positive about Iraq’s future than the country’s majority Shiites.
Reconstruction of Sunni cities in the north destroyed by the fight against IS is key to maintaining a semblance of Iraqi unity. With no signs of massive reconstruction gaining momentum, old wounds that have driven insurgencies for more than a decade could reignite IS in new forms. “All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” said former Iraqi foreign minister and Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, referring to the group by another of its acronyms.
The initial flash in the pan threatens to be the fact that Iraqi Kurds are certain to vote for independence in a unilateral referendum scheduled for September 25. If the independence issue did not provide enough explosives in and of itself, the Kurds’ insistence on including in the referendum the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and adjacent areas further fuelled the fire.
The referendum and the dispute over Kirkuk reopen the question of what Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are even if the Kurds opt not to act immediately on a vote for independence and to remain part of an Iraqi federation for the time being.
The issue could blow a further hole into Iraq’s already fragile existence as a united nation state. Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has denounced the referendum. His efforts to persuade the Iraqi parliament to fire Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim for backing the poll as well as for calls for parliament to withdraw confidence in Iraqi President Fuad Masum and sack ministers and other senior officials of Kurdish descent could push the Kurds over the edge.
Iraqi military officials as well as the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are aligned with the military have vowed to prevent the referendum from being held in Kirkuk. “Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. We would by no means give up on Kirkuk even if this were to cause major bloodshed,” said Ayoub Faleh aka Abu Azrael, the commander of Imam Ali Division, an Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia.
A possible fight may not be contained to Kirkuk. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces vie for control of areas from which IS has been driven out stretch westwards along the length of northern Iraq. Mr. Al-Abadi warned that he would intervene militarily if the referendum, which he described as unconstitutional, provoked violence.
Add to that, the ganging up on the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and the United States. The US backs the Iraqi government even if it put Kurdistan on course towards independence when it allowed the autonomous enclave to emerge under a protective no-fly zone that kept the forces of Saddam Hussein at bay. Breaking with the US and its Arab allies, Israel has endorsed Kurdish independence.
Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Iranian Al Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani have warned the Kurds on visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to back away from the referendum. Iran has threatened to close its borders with the region.
Describing the referendum as “a matter of national security,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “no one should have doubt that we will take all the necessary steps in this matter.” Turkey fears that Kurdish independence would spur secessionist aspirations among its own Kurds, who account for up to 20 percent of its population and that an independent Kurdistan would harbour Turkish Kurdish insurgents already operating from the region.
Mr. Al-Abadi alluded to possible Turkish and/or Iranian military intervention to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan by suggesting that the referendum would be “a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders… The Turks are very angry about it because they have a large Kurdish population inside Turkey and they feel that their national security is threatened because it is a huge problem for them. And, of course, the Iranians are on the same line,” Mr. Al-Abadi said.
The Kurdish quest for some form of self-rule is likely to manifest itself in Syria too. The US backs a Syrian Kurdish militia aligned with Turkish Kurdish militants in its fight against IS. The militia that prides itself on its women fighters is among the forces besieging the IS capital of Raqqa.
The Kurds are hoping that an end to the war in Syria will leave them with an Iraq-style autonomous region on the Turkish border – an aspiration that Turkey, like in Iraq, vehemently opposes. The target of strikes by the Turkish air force, the Kurds hope to benefit from the force’s shortage of pilots because of mass purges in the wake of last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The air force last month ordered all former fighter pilots flying for Turkish airlines to report for service.
The Kurds may provide the first flashpoint for another round of volatility and violence, but they are not the only ones. Nor are sectarian and other ethnic divisions that are likely to wrack Iraq and Syria once the current round of fighting subsides.
Eager to find a face-saving exit from its ill-fated invasion of Yemen that has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss, Saudi Arabia is will have to cope with a populous country on its border, many of whose citizens harbour deep-seated anger at the devastation and human suffering caused by the Saudis that will take years to reverse.
Similarly, the three-month-old rift between Qatar and an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is likely to leave deep-seated scars that will hamper integration among the six Gulf states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Middle East’s only functioning regional organization prior to the crisis. A failure of talks between Qatar and its detractors, mediated by US President Donald J. Trump, even before they got started, suggested that a resolution to the crisis is nowhere in sight.
Coping with the fallout of the crisis and the Yemen war, simply adds to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s woes as he prepares to at some point succeed his ailing father, King Salman. Prince Mohammed, who is popular among the country’s youth in expectation of economic and social change, has already had to backtrack on some of the promised change. Foreign lenders have moreover indicated a lack of confidence as they head for the exit rather than explore new opportunities.
In addition, Prince Mohammed has signalled concern about opposition to his proposed reforms within the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family, determination to avoid political change, and willingness to rule with an iron fist. Prominent religious scholars with significant followings and activists have been arrested in recent weeks while dissenting members of the ruling family have been put under house arrest.
The optimistic view may be that the Middle East is six years into an era of political, economic and social change. If historic yardsticks are applicable, that amounts to one third of a process of transition that can take up to quarter of a century to work itself out. There is little reason to believe that the next third will be any less volatile or violent.
Gulf countries pivot towards Israel: Can Arab recognition be foresighted?
The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman surprised the entire world and delivered a message of smoothening of relations between Oman and Israel. This event has marked the first ever visit by any Israeli leader to Oman in 22 years. The Israeli Prime Minister and the Sultan discussed ‘Ways to enhance the peace process in the Middle East’ as well as other issues of ‘joint interest’. For Netanyahu, a milestone was achieved in the form of Oman recognition of Israel as normalizing relations with fellow regional states is one of the important clause of Netanyahu’s policy. Moreover, an Israeli Minister Yisrael Katz attended an International Transport Conference in Oman and proposed a railway link to connect Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea. However, the railway link isn’t confirmed yet, it was just proposed in the conference. In parallel, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attended Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 in United Arab Emirates, where for the first time in history the national anthem of Israel was played. Similar approach was adopted by Israel towards Qatar. These changing dynamics can foresight the future of Gulf politics, that is, gulf countries can align with Israel to counter the influence of Iran in the region and for this purpose gulf countries may recognize Israel.
An important thing to notice is that the countries smoothening their relations with Israel are members of GCC, where Saudi Arabia is at the top of hierarchy- the major decision maker in Middle East- which means without Saudi Arabia’s willingness and its interests, GCC countries cannot take such a big decision. Now here a question arises, why would Saudi Arabia allow this approach?
The main reasons are; firstly, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman have cordial relations with Israel’s top leadership and he(MBS) is seen as a potential ally by Israel in Middle East, the major reason why Israel demanded US to side by Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder case. Second, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia- the self-proclaimed leader of the Sunni Muslim world- to recognize Israel while other states in the region still oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Middle East. Recognition of Israel by other GCC countries would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel or at least to melt ice. Lastly, the Khashoggi murder case have already deteriorated the international image of Saudi Arabia, at this point of time the country cannot afford to bear another blame as Muslim countries think it would be injustice to Palestinians if Israel is recognized.
So will Saudi Arabia follow the suit and recognize Israel? The question still remains ambiguous, but since Saudi Arabia haven’t opposed these action of GCC countries and a continuous diplomatic support from Israel to Saudi Arabia have been visible although both countries do not have diplomatic relations, it can be predicted that something is going on, between both of these states which they have chosen not to disclose now. Coming to Qatar, since Qatar is also involved in this process of developing diplomatic relations with Israel, it can prove to be a catalyst in the troubled Saudi/Qatar relations as helping Saudi Arabia to develop relations with Israel while other Arab states are doing the same can lift up the entire blame from Saudi Arabia. Maybe the sanctions over Qatar will be lifted or just become less intensified. Qatar sees it as an opportunity to regain the similar status in the region as well as to reconstruct relations with the other Arab countries.
Turkish Newspaper Implicates UAE’s Crown Prince in Covering Up Murder of Khashoggi
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, are close friends and allies, who jointly lead the war against Houthi-led Yemen. On Sunday afternoon, November 18th, a leading Turkish newspaper, Yeni Şafak, reported the two leaders to have also collaborated in hiding the murder on October 2nd in Istanbul of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Yeni Şafak headlined “Dahlan ‘cover-up team’ from Lebanon helps hide traces of Khashoggi murder” and reported that on October 2nd, “A second team that arrived in Istanbul to help cover-up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dispatched by Muhammed Dahlan, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed’s chief hitman in the region, … according to an informed source who spoke to Yeni Şafak daily on the condition of anonymity.”
On November 16th, the Washington Post had headlined “CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination”.
Bin Salman and bin Zayed are U.S. President Donald Trump’s closest foreign allies other than, possibly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All four men are determined that there be regime-change in Shiite Iran. This anti-Shia position bonds them also against the Houthis, who are Shiites, in Yemen, where bin Salman and bin Zayed lead the war, and the United States provides the training, logistics, and weapons. Both bin Salman and bin Zayed are fundamentalist Sunnis who are against Shia Muslims. Israel and the United States are allied with these two princes. Saudi Arabia’s royal family have been committed against Shia Muslims ever since 1744 when the Saud family made a pact with the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Mohammed ibn Wahhab, who hated Shia Muslims. Thus, Saudi Arabia is actually Saudi-Wahhabi Arabia, with Sauds running the aristocracy, and Wahhabists running the clergy.
In 2017, in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh, Trump sold, to the Saudi Crown Prince, initially, $350 billion of U.S.-made weapons over a ten-year period (the largest weapons-sale in world history), and $110 billion in just the first year. That deal was soon increased to $404 billion. For Trump publicly to acknowledge that Salman had “ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination” would jeopardize this entire deal, and, perhaps, jeopardize the consequent boom in America’s economy. It also would jeopardize the U.S. alliance’s war against Shiites in Yemen.
Revisiting the Qatari crisis
In 2017 the dispute between Qatar and a number of its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Oman has considered as the most serious crisis since years and could escalate in the future to destabilise an already turbulent region. The Qatari support to the extremist parties and terrorist entities in the region is the apparent reason, however, conflicting of interest between Qatar and the other states about the Iranian relations, the political Islam and the competition over the regional leadership are the main reasons. Egypt, Oman and the UAE with the leadership of Saudi Arabia withdrawing diplomats, closing borders, announcing a number of Qatari citizens as terrorist supporters and place an embargo on Qatar and most of its interests and businesses in the region.
The primary reason for the Saudi’s camp blockade is the Qatari politically and financially support for violent extremist groups often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood which considers as a real threat for the other GCC states in particular because of the ability of these group to create a secretive organisation with extreme religious behaviour. However, Qatar is relatively weaker in terms of politically and militarily than the Saudi’s camp, but it has continued to support its Islamist allies for many reasons: ideological sympathy; a believe that political Islam could reflect into Qatar’s influence in the region; a desire to challenge the traditional regional influence especially Saudi Arabia and its followers. In addition, Qatar has used its owned media tool the Aljazeera channel to magnify the Muslim Brotherhood influence and to criticise leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which has been the major thorn in the relations.
The Qatari-Iranian close tie is the second source of tension which seen by other GCC states as a threat to the stability and even the existence of the Sunni majority states in the Gulf. The growing Qatari Iranian relation is evident in many occasions such as the Qatari voting against the UNSC resolution that calling on Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment project and the signing of Qatari Iranian agreement in counterterrorism cooperation which is a Qatar approach to benefit from the Iranian forces due to the modest Qatari military capability. Moreover, the Amir of Qatar called the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and congratulated him on his re-election on April 2017. Finally, Qatar paid the amount of $700 for Kataab Hezbollah Iraq (Iranian baked militia) for the exchange of a member of the Qatari royal family who has been a hostage in Iraq, (probably falsely) was the act that irritated most of the GCC states and triggering the crisis.
The Trump’s administration policy in the region gives Riyad, Cairo and Abu Dhabi the green light to punish Qatar for its support to the Islamic movement. Trump expressed a passive acceptance to the Saudi and its allies in an attempt to contain the greedy Iranian strategy in the region and to confront the rising of the radical Islam. However, it seems that Saudi and its allies are unqualified for such a containment scheme to Iran the giant regional power. Trump also took credit on Twitter and describe the Qatari Amir as “high-level founder of terrorism.” Thus, the blockade can see as an attempt from the Saudi’s camp to push Qatar back to the line, an opportunity to satisfy their allies in Washington and to shift the public opinion to the Qatari issues instead of many internal issues and shortcoming.
The crisis involved a number of unpredictable stakeholders with huge interests in the region which could turn the situation into uncontrollable in many ways. The blockade camp clearly desires that Qatar recognise how serious they are, rapidly back to the line and admit unambiguously their list of demands which include shutting down Aljazeera, end the cooperating with Iran, stop supporting the Islamic parties and recognise the Saudi leadership in the GCC region. On the other hand, Qatar with its relatively small population 300,000 citizens and fund over $300 billion ensures the state will never face a serious financial issue in the future. Moreover, Qatar is the home of the U.S. air base Al-Udeid which is a critical component of the U.S. campaign in the Middle East. Therefore, Qatar knows that the U.S. has an immediate interest in emphasising the stability and the security in Qatar in particular while the U.S. does not have an alternative to Al-Udeid base to support its strategy in the Middle East. The Saudi’s camp is unlikely to abandon their demands. The crisis shows how much the GCC leaders are threatening and in a confusing situation toward support specific radical Islam movements and relation with Iran. In addition, the blockade camp can maintain the sanctions for a long time rather than take a military action due to its economic cost and the lack of suitable capabilities to conduct such a war. For instance, the Saudi campaign in Yemen now and after three years, shows a significant failure to achieve its strategic goals.
The current situations for both sides show that the crisis could easily continue for more years which is a critical concern to all the stakeholders in the region. Now Iran and Turkey are playing a significant role in supporting Qatar needs of foods and goods to minimise the inconvenient of the embargo. Also, Ankara is considering enhancing its military presence in Qatar which seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia the major regional compotator for the Turkish influence. That also shows a high possibility of an Iranian Turkish large-scale involvement in case of a military confrontation.
The U.S. mission should focus on balancing the support to the Gulf States and their core interests as well as supporting the stability by avoiding encouraging them from adopting a risky diplomatic offensives options that can backfire into the whole region. It seems that the U.S. should adopt nuanced diplomacy to end the crisis which is not that simple for the current U.S. administration. Since the conflicting parties of this crisis will not likely find a comprehensive solution on their own, the U.S. should make it a priority to help them do so before the costs of the dispute continue to escalate in unpredictable ways.
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