The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia’s hazard, Qatar’s isolation and Iran’s potential win

 

Where does the diplomatic crisis that has been unfolding in the Gulf in the past couple of days stems from and where does it risk leading the region

 

In what to many has been a familiar déjà-vu, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar at the centre of it has been unfolding in the past couple of days in the Gulf. However, despite not being anything new to the region’s inner actors and outside experts, this time the diplomatic rift has assumed more dramatic tones: unlike what happened in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives did not limit to sever diplomatic ties with Doha but also severed all sea, land and air ties; issued expulsion orders to Qataris residing in their countries; and expelled Qatar from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

According to what reported by Saudi news agencies on Monday 5th of May, the reasons that led Riyadh to adopt such tough measures against Qatar and that led the other countries mentioned above to follow suit are to be found in Doha’s financial and material support to terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and to its excessively close ties to Shia Iran.

As a matter of fact, Qatar has historically characterized itself for a somewhat independent foreign policy that has at times created rifts and tensions between the Emirate and the other GCC countries: it has always maintained cordial ties to Iran, with which it manages gas exploitation in South Pars, the world’s largest gas reserve that lies in the Gulf’s waters between Iran and Qatar; it has traditionally sponsored and provided a safe haven to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; it has maintained close and cooperative links with PA’s rival Hamas; and in 2011 its news outlet Al Jazeera largely supported the Arab Spring that was conversely arousing the fears of GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

Nevertheless, Qatar has always tried to balance its quite independent foreign and regional policy with substantive alignment with the GCC, as its involvement in the war in Yemen to restore President Hadi and its participation in the fight against ISIS proves. Therefore, the decision of Saudi Arabia to cut all sort of ties with Doha, without even clarifying which steps should Qatar take to step out of its current isolation, needs to be explained in light of other and deeper considerations than mere accusations of links with terrorism (from which not even Saudi Arabia itself is exempted) and with Iran (a country with which also Oman has pretty cordial relations).

The tough moves embraced by Saudi Arabia against Qatar are taking place just a couple of weeks after President Trump made of Riyadh the first destination of its first Presidential trip abroad. There, the American President’s words and acts (among which the signature of a new arms deal worth 110 billion $ stands out) revealed an American Middle Eastern policy that sees in Saudi Arabia a major strategic partner with whom to fight terrorism and curb Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps more quickly and more dramatically than expected, this new attitude of Washington towards Riyadh has made the kingdom more self-confident in its self-entrusted role as Sunni leader and has encouraged its already assertive posture vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, emboldened by a retrieved friendship with the US that the years of the Obama administration had seemed to cool, Saudi Arabia has decided to act promptly and to assert its prominence as Sunni anti-Iranian leader by cutting ties with a Qatari neighbour judged not belligerent enough against Teheran.

In doing so, though, Riyadh is playing with fire and it is risking unleashing further tensions in an already troubled region.

As Qatar sees itself isolated in the Gulf peninsula and with no reliable friends in the GCC, its only hopes of re-inclusion rest with the mediating role that Turkey and the US might play. However, until now neither Ankara nor Washington has clearly intervened in the diplomatic rift on Qatar’s behalf: the former seems reticent to openly criticize Riyadh’s assertiveness and seems to be considering the UAE as a possible country where to transfer its military base currently installed in Qatar; the latter, on its part, is too absorbed by the fight against the PKK and the dynamics of the Syrian war to search another confrontation.

In this context of deep isolation, in which old enemies resurface and old friends shied away, Qatar might thus find itself in a situation in which strengthening its ties with Teheran becomes the best and only path out of the solitude. If this did occur, the shift of a Sunni major strategic and economic power like Qatar to Iran’s camp would risk exacerbating further the dangerous confrontation between Riyadh and Teheran, with unpredictable –but surely destructive- effects on the entire region.

Saudi Arabia should therefore remember that by playing with fire you risk sparking flames that you cannot control -and getting burnt yourself.

Rising tensions across the Levant

 

The last week has witnessed a heightening of tensions between Syria and Israel. Far from being a two-actor tale, this escalation is expression of the delicate balances of power and axes of alliance involving all the actors of the Syrian war

 

In the Middle East’s complex and ever-evolving arena, the past days have been marked by a worrying escalation of tensions between Syria and Israel. This escalation, that is now adding to the troubles the Levant is already facing, is taking place after a series of incidents that have occurred over the last week and that are the most serious cases of direct Israeli-Syrian confrontation since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

It all began last Friday when Israeli warplanes conducted a series of air raids near Palmyra against convoys suspected of transferring weapons to Hezbollah. As a response, the Syrian government fired a number of missiles towards Israeli jets and -according to Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese reports- an Israeli drone was even shot down on Monday by Syrian aerial defense systems. Since then, tensions between the two countries have been worsening, with each side warning the other against the risks of retaliation and claiming its resoluteness not to leave attacks un-responded.

 

As these worrisome events unfold in the Levant, understanding the strategic considerations lying behind them, their significance as eventual “game changers”, and their likely future impact on the regional post-war settlement, requires to look at the broader set of actors involved in the Syrian conflict, at the specific regional and national interests motivating each of them, and at the peculiarities of the alliances of which they are part.

 

Of the many foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, a major role –both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table- is that played by Russia since its direct intervention in September 2015.  Committed to guaranteeing the survival of its Alawite friend, and allied in its military activities and political moves to Iran and Hezbollah, Moscow is nonetheless determined to oppose any military strategy against Israel that its allies might want to pursue. In particular, it wants to avoid any destabilization on part of its war allies of the border along the Golan Heights (an area bitterly disputed since 1967) since a similar course of action might end up dragging Russia in an unwanted confrontation with Israel. For Russia, indeed, cooperating in the Syrian conflict with Iran and Hezbollah but keeping itself at a distance from their regional ambitions against Israel is the win-win strategy par excellence.

It is this position endorsed by Russia that has led Netanyahu to Moscow more than once (the latest on March 9th), as he sees in Putin an important partner to deter Iran and Hezbollah from challenging Israel’s interests. However, as political analysts and policymakers begin to see an end to the Syrian conflict, the weight of Iran and Hezbollah in negotiating a post-war settlement is something that Russia cannot ignore if it wants to play the role of mediator and peace-broker to which it aspires. In other words, if until now Russia has been able to find a balance between avoiding tensions with Israel over crucial (and to Israel indeed vital) issues such as the Golan border and preserving a united front with its war allies Iran and Hezbollah, continuing to do so is becoming ever more difficult for Moscow.

For its part, Damascus is similarly interested in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from turning the border region along the Golan into a future battlefield that would risk seeing Syria involved in another regional conflict that the country cannot afford (economically, militarily, demographically). However, the Syrian government has become ever more self-confident over the past months and last week’s counter-strikes against Israel not only strengthen the credibility of the regime’s image but also stand as real “game-changers” in the regional balance of power. Indeed, if Israel’s attacks against arms shipments to Hezbollah are nothing new, Syrian assertive response is instead a new factor that has to be dealt with.

On the contrary, Iran and Hezbollah are united in their aspiration to exploit the context of the Syrian civil war, the regional instability triggered by it, and the questionability of the regional borders that it has brought about, to revive the dispute over the Golan area and reignite direct confrontation with Israel. Strong of the successes that they have been achieving during the years of war, Hezbollah and Iran see now themselves in the right military position and with the right diplomatic leverage to destabilize at their advantage the Golan area – an area which is geo-strategically crucial for the pursuit of their security interests in the context of their historical hostility with Israel.

On the opposite side of the conflict, then, there is Israel, whose involvement in the Syrian civil war responds to considerations of national security and, in particular, to the need of preventing any meaningful success for Iran and Hezbollah that might turn them into major and powerful regional actors.  For Tel Aviv, a non-questionable tenet of its security policy is the preservation of the Golan border as defined unilaterally by itself in 1967. Therefore, it perceives as especially worrying the threats posed to the stability of the area by Iran and Hezbollah, and it is to the perception of these threats that one has to look to explain last week’s air raids against weapons convoys headed to Hezbollah.

In addition, Israel aspires to have a say in the post-war regional settlement in order to protect its interests and avert the creation of non-favourable centres of powers along its borders. In this light, last week’s attacks stand thus as Israel’s reminders of its weight and “voice” in the definition of regional balances.

 

In conclusion, as each actor pursues its own interests as peculiarly defined against the prospect of an end of the Syrian war, the escalation between Syria and Israel and the possibility of a post-war confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran over the Golan have the potential to become the most serious challenges to the region’s equilibrium in the upcoming future.

Interestingly enough, the resolution of these challenges will largely depend on Russia’s capacity to maintain even in a post-war context its crucial balancing role and to adapt it to the changing circumstances on the ground.

 

[Picture rights: Israeli Defense Ministry]

 

Yemen, one year after

Entering its second year of hostilities, Yemen is stuck in the dynamics of a civil and regional conflict that seems to offer no easy way out

 

Often obscured by the other events threatening the Middle East’s precarious balances and often buried under the curtain of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Yemen is nevertheless one of the most crucial theatres of the region and one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the past decades.

It all began (or rather escalated) one year ago, when the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa and the Saudis intervened at the head of a Sunni coalition determined to prevent any Shia rise in the Gulf.  Since then, Yemen’s already weak political landscape has definitely collapsed; a civil conflict has taken roots in the country and taken the life of too many of its inhabitants; jihadist groups such as AQAP and ISIS have found a fertile ground for their terrorist acts; and all the attempts made to reach viable agreements through diplomacy have gone up in smoke.

With the war marking this month its first anniversary, no light seems to be in sight at the end of the tunnel and no side seems to be disposed to step back and compromise. Rather, each party maintains the perception that a step back would be a step down in the precipice and a victory for the enemy.

Saudi Arabia, the war’s major foreign player, entered the Yemeni conflict through an intervention that marked the beginning of a new and more assertive Saudi foreign policy and that revealed how much Riyadh was (and still is) feeling exposed to the threatening rise of the Shia rival Iran.                                                                                                                                           With the rapprochement between the West and Iran in full course and with the role played by Teheran and its Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the Houthis in Yemen became for Riyadh the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Despite the lack of any confirmation of a direct Iranian support for the Houthis, it became nonetheless vital in the eyes of Riyadh to prevent the Houthis from taking control over Yemen so as to avoid any risk of an Iranian wave of influence spreading from the Levant to the Gulf. In this framework, the war in Yemen became for Saudi Arabia pivotal to preserve its credibility as regional power and instrumental to send a signal to the rising Shia rival.

All this, though, came at a cost for Riyadh and to stand up to the perceived Iranian threat the Saudis have found themselves stuck in Yemen.

Acting as it did, Saudi Arabia gave to what was a domestic conflict a regional geopolitical dimension that it did not have and this, over the past twelve months, has turned the Yemeni war in such a complex and multidimensional conflict that it is now difficult to even imagine a viable way out.

Riyadh has thus far invested too much (both economically and in terms of credibility) to accept anything less than a settlement that grants the House of Saud a major influence over Sanaa’s affairs.

Nor is the search for negotiations stronger on the opposite side of the war. The Houthis have found themselves at the heart of geopolitical games, calculations and interests that go beyond the framework within which they had initially conceived and conducted their upsurge.        Risen against Hadi and a political system which they regarded as discriminating, they ended up on the stage of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and seem now to be in a position in which their bargaining power in any future settlement depends on how long they manage to resist the attacks of the Saudi-led coalition.

Therefore, imagining an agreement capable of restoring stability in the country requires a considerable degree of faith and hope.

Interested by domestic and regional dynamics whose boundaries are becoming ever more overlapping, the Yemeni war can find its end only with a serious and unambiguous intervention on part of the international community. In the specific, the international community should frame each side’s perception of costs and benefits of the war in a way that stresses possible points of convergence when it comes to imagining a post-war Yemen. For instance, nor the Houthis nor Saudi Arabia have anything to gain from the presence on the Yemeni soil of jihadist groups that directly threaten to the former’s survival and to the letter’s security. Their common opposition to AQAP and ISIS could thus be turned into a first and concrete point of convergence capable of making the dialogue start and progress.

For the moment it seems that the prosecution of hostilities is the only point on which all parties agree and though it is not too late yet to merge faith and hope with a coherent and resolute diplomatic approach aimed at avoiding another anniversary of a war that is tearing Yemen apart.

[Published in “The Times of Israel – Blogs“]