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.

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The “mother of all bombs” is daughter of no strategy

The US dropping of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan reveals all the weaknesses of Washington’s Afghan policy and the need for a more comprehensive strategy capable of responding to the country’s many security challenges and political problems

 

One day after ISIS-Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack near government offices in Kabul that killed five people and wounded ten, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where ISIS-K is based. The GBU-43 bomb is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition that was first tested in 2003, before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is the largest non-nuclear bomb that the US has ever used in combat, and because of its destructive potential it has gained the nickname “mother of all bombs”.

After the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the head of American and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. Nicholson said that the operation was intended to damage the operational capabilities of ISIS-K and to increase the protection of international and Afghan forces against its terrorist attacks. On the same line, spokesperson within the Pentagon stressed the efficiency that deploying such a powerful weapon can have in the framework of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and the contribution that it can give to ending a “war on terror” that begun sixteen years ago and that still lacks a clear winner.

 

However, the massive military attack of Thursday does not seem to be part of any broader US Afghan strategy and it is difficult to see how a similar show of military might on part of Washington can respond to the exigencies and the challenges of the Afghan war. The bombing in Nangarhar might perhaps respond to Trump’s foreign policy narrative of an assertive and credible American military power and to the expectations of those voters who supported his project of making America “great again”, but it certainly does not respond to the needs of Afghanistan. Indeed, the problems in terms of terrorism, security, and stability that Afghanistan is facing are too complex for a mere militarist approach to be sufficient.

 

Firstly, there is to consider the weakness of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and the stalemate that continues to paralyze policy-making in Kabul. Despite the important and undeniable step forward that the instalment of the NUG in 2014 under the leadership of Ghani and Abdullah represented, the country is still characterized by a political system made of patronage and ethnic rivalries/alliances that find their roots in a culture traditionally dominated by tribalism. In this context, it is necessary to embrace a strategy that encourages –as the NUG tried to do, but in a more credible and effective way- the development of a political system based on actual (not merely fictional) power-sharing across ethnic groups, so as to give equal representation to the country’s diverse realities. Only in this way it will be possible to make of the government in Kabul an inclusive one, in which all Afghans can recognize themselves and which all Afghans can come to trust and respect.

Secondly, adding to the NUG’s limited inclusiveness and worsening its low credibility, is the rampant corruption within the government and the military that has created over the years a wide gap between government officials and security forces on one hand, and the population on the other. This gap has eroded the trust of Afghans in the political class and the security apparatus, since they regard both of them as distant, detached from people’s grievances, and exclusively focused on furthering their interests and broadening their privileges. Unsurprisingly, this has helped groups such as the Taliban to gain a considerable degree of popular support, or at least connivance. What the Taliban (and more recently, though to a lesser extent, also ISIS-K) managed to do, in fact, was to exploit the Afghans’ distrust in the government, in the army, and in a political system perceived as corrupt and inefficient, in order to present itself as a viable and better alternative. It is on this background that a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –especially in those rural areas that Kabul struggles the most to reach and control- ensued, and no strategy in Afghanistan can successfully deal with the country’s internal conflict without addressing this major challenge. It is indeed crucial to replace the existing political culture of favoritism and nepotism with one of accountability and responsibility that –together with better systems of checks and balances- might restore the Afghan people’s trust. Unless this trust is restored, in fact, non-state groups such as the Taliban and ISIS-K will easily exploit the situation at their advantage, giving to people what corrupted politicians and security forces fail to give and gaining in this way their support.

Finally, there is an exogenous factor to be taken into account when attempting to frame a successful strategy for Afghanistan, and this is the role of Pakistan and its historical use of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth vis-à-vis India. In the specific, since the early ‘90s Pakistan has been doing so by backing the Afghan Taliban in their struggle to control Kabul, and the continuation of this policy up to this date reveals the necessity of a strategy that uses diplomatic and economic leverages to encourage Islamabad to change its traditional Afghan policy. At this respect, though, the picture is made more complex by the need to consider two other major players: China, that has recently supported Pakistan’s economy with investments for $57 bn, and Russia, that is tightening its ties with Pakistan in the attempt of increasing its influence in South Asia. An effective Afghan strategy is thus one that looks not only at what happens within the country but also at the broader set of actors that rotate around it and whose influence on the conflict’s prosecution/ending is of primary relevance.

 

In conclusion, Afghanistan is a country facing an extremely wide array of problems and challenges and if the US is determined to address them in order to bring an end to the conflict, a mono-dimensional and militarist approach such as embodied by Thursday’s attack is not viable nor effective, and a broader and multi-dimensional strategy is required in its stead.

 

[Photo: AP]