The stand-off between Qatar and the Saudi-led Arab bloc has entered its fifth month bringing to the surface some Qatari exile opposition figures. Despite heavily promoted in Quartet states, it seems that these little-known figures, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, can play no more than an episodic role in the politic arena and it is hard to believe that any can become a serious challenger to the throne.
However, despite their obscurity inside and outside Qatar, these so-called “leaders of Qatari opposition” have received broad media coverage in Saudi led quartet states.
Egyptian, Emirati and Saudi newspapers have been full of reports claiming that domestic opposition to Qatari Emir-Sheik Tamim was mounting. But, deeper analysis of this reports reveals that any possible threat for Qatari ruling elite, at least in theory, comes from its dissatisfied family members and not from the street.
Qatari opposition “leaders”
As soon as Qatari crisis emerged in June, Egyptian press reported that little known Sheikh Saud bin Nasser Al-Thani, member of the ruling family in Qatar, was preparing to form a political party based in London, in opposition to the ruling regime of Emir Tamim. This newly formed opposition party was to pursue a different course in its foreign policy, one more in line with Saudi and UAE demands, including freezing Qatar’s relations with Iran, ending Qatari support for Islamists in Libya and Egypt, and expelling Islamist leaders from the Gulf state. It was also reported that the ruling family’s dissidents, gathered around Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Geneva based uncle of the Qatari Emir, will create an opposition front against the current Qatari ruler.
Paris-based Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim Al-Thani, the son of Qatar’s foreign minister from 1972 to 1985, Sheikh Suhaim bin Hamad Al-Thani, is also among those members of the ruling dynasty that oppose the policies of the Qatari Emir. Gulf media reported on October 16, that Qatari State security forces stormed his palace in Doha, confiscating documents and holdings of Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim as well as his father’s archives. Before this incident, he heavily criticized Qatari leadership in his Sky News Arabia appearance in mid-September. “Because of mistakes made by the Qatari government”, he said, “I have all fears that the Qatari identity will be linked to terrorism,” while expressing its firm support to Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani’s views to resolve the Qatari crisis.
Sheikh Abdullah bin al-Thani has emerged as the central figure of the opposition, according to Quartet media, and soon became a frequent guest in Saudi royal court. He might have gained a few political points after high-profile visits with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman due to his possible role in Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow Qatari pilgrims direct passage to the Saudi Arabia for the hajj in August. But this could have also been a tactical move of Saudis presenting little known Sheikh Abdullah, as someone who can solve the crisis. It is not surprising that soon afterward Saudis have been suggesting Sheikh Abdullah should rule Qatar as an emir in exile. Salman Al-Ansari, for example, the founder and president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), a powerful lobbying group, openly called for regime change in Qatar. In his tweet, he called for Quartet states to support Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani as the “only legitimate” leader of Qatar.
Finally, Khalid al-Hail, a Qatari exile who has proclaimed himself a leader of the country’s opposition, is the latest personae to emerge amid the Qatar crisis. Although he came into the media spotlight back in 2014 when he founded a little known “Youth Movement for the Rescue of Qatar”, this entrepreneur caught the attention after organising the controversial and semi-secret conference held on September 14th in London. “The Qatar, Global Security & Stability Conference” was supported by the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation.
The London Conference and its impact
The debate on the conference focused on political Islam and terrorist groups, democracy, human rights and Al Jazeera/free press. The conference website has presented a publication called “Qatar Crisis: Exploring the possible outcomes of the Qatari leadership crisis.”
Possible outcomes presumed were that Qatar’s foreign relations will shift in a Saudi/Emirati direction, but without mentioning measures of democratic reforms inside Qatar. The document also openly advocated for a “bloodless coup” which would replace emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, either by dissatisfied members of his own family (with support from Qatar’s armed forces) or as a result of military intervention by “regional states.” All of these presumptions comply with Hail’s previous statements given to various Gulf media. But when asked to further explain the agenda of Qatari opposition and his views on foreign intervention against his own homeland and the role of neighbouring countries in supporting his movement, Mr al-Hail remains silent. The same goes for other participants at the conference, including Mr. Thomas Mace-Archer-Mills, the founder of British Monarchist Society and Foundation who supported this conference and Daniel Kawczynski , a Conservative pro-Saudi MP and the “Honourable Member for Saudi Arabia,” who also has not responded to our calls.
Members of the anti-Qatar Quartet have heavily promoted Qatari opposition and their ideas of political changes in the Qatar. But this is rather strange, as quartet states have an extremely poor record on any of the points discussed at the conference including democratic values, human rights or freedom of the press, making their concern over these issues in Qatar even more bizarre.
This is why Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior staff member of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, thinks that “London opposition conference was an unusually ineffective PR stunt and irrelevant to Qatar’s future.”
Amna Al Thani, an AM Candidate from the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the Harvard University, is quite convinced that this event was conducted by a neighbouring country and very few Qataris participated at the conference “Did you see any Qatari at this event? London has thousands of Qataris living there as students or for other purposes and no one had attended. It has not really crossed Qataris radar even,” she noted.
Relevancy of Qatari opposition
The limited impact of the London conference brings a question how much influence these exiles from the newly formed “opposition” enjoy among Qataris and how much support if any they can expect from global key players?
According to Dr. Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations & Gulf Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar, none of these figures have any significant support in Qatar. And even if they represented some minor strands of grievance among some sections of the population or the Al Thani, whatever credibility or support they might have theoretically derived from that would have been completely destroyed by their association with the four boycotting countries.
Calling for foreign intervention against its own people has never been met with sympathies anywhere. Since the crisis began, there has been mass public support for Emir Sheikh Tamim all over Qatar. Amna Al Thani told us that the Qatari general public is “completely behind Sheikh Tamim as you saw from the happiness and sense of pride that occurred when he came back from New York after the UN general assembly meeting and his meeting with the US president.” In the last five months one could easily notice an avalanche of support messages via social media and in public life as Qataris as well as expats decorated their cars and boats with images of Qatari Emir -Tamim al-Thani.
Cammack, however, noted that public opinion in the Gulf is notoriously difficult to measure, and some of the public displays of affection for Sheikh Tamim were no doubt exaggerated for international consumption. But nevertheless, “the instinct to rally around the flag into the face of political interference is nearly universal. It is almost certain that the clumsy support by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the Qatari opposition will discredit it, rather than bolster it,” he told us.
Consequently, Amna Al-Thani believes that “if the blockade states are aiming to destabilize the country, it has certainly produced the complete opposite effect. “ So far there has been no evidence of a serious domestic challenger to the emir.
Therefore, Dr. Nonneman believes that Qatari exiles cannot get any serious support anywhere outside quartet states, as decision-makers elsewhere can see through these things and know they are no more than bit-players in the propaganda war of the Quartet. Even the international media have been very sceptical of the claimed roles and importance of these figures.
“Qatari opposition”- the failed Quartet project
The emergence of the exile opposition is without doubt closely linked with Saudi-UAE efforts to bring down the current Qatari leadership. It seems that the whole project of Qatari opposition has been inspired or at least heavily supported by the Quartet. According to Dr. Nonneman the “Qatari Opposition” tactic being adopted on occasion by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi can only be understood as an attempt to cause friction, worry and questioning inside Qatar and the ruling family, in the hope that the tactic would lead in a more indirect way to destabilisation and hence might increase the Qatari leadership’s willingness to submit to the Quartet’s demands. The real impact of these efforts, according to Cammack, “is to further personalize the conflict, making it that much more difficult to resolve.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Nonneman points out that it is very hard to believe – although not completely impossible – that anyone in the leadership in the Quartet countries seriously thinks there was ever scope for regime change by using these tactics, but even the less ambitious idea betrays a real lack of understanding of current Qatari social and political dynamics. “That is why I think the explanation cannot be complete without pointing to flawed decision-making by a very small and closed circle in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, without the benefit of advice and intelligence from other voices and state institutions (including the intelligence professionals formerly overseen by Mohammed bin Nayef-deposed Saudi crown prince) where real insights on Qatari political dynamics might have been found”.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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