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.

KABUL AND THE TALIBAN – THE DEAL THAT WON’T BE

Too many divisions and contradictions within Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban make the peace deal a target that cannot be reached now. But the developments of the last months have shown us where should we start from and what should we go through

Since his earliest days as President, Ashraf Ghani’s main target has been the fight against terrorism, meant not as a military confrontation that no side could endure, but as a diplomatic arrangement to a problem that is tearing the country apart. And this is indeed the most realistic approach: due to the support the Taliban enjoy both within and outside Afghanistan’s borders and due to the difficulties – in terms of preparation, organization, means at disposal – the Afghan Army and the Afghan Security Forces still face, a military confrontation would be vain. The only possibility to put an end to terrorism, then, is to sit down, talk and work on an arrangement that would include the Taliban in the country’s political framework.

For this to happen, though, Ghani needs the support of Pakistan – a country that has always given Afghan Taliban a safe haven to act from and to hide in; and this is where Kabul’s recent shift in foreign policy and in the weaving of regional alliances finds its justification.

After Ghani spent months trying to convince Pakistan to convince the Taliban to negotiate, a first step forward was the talk held in Murree on the 7th of July, that saw the attendance of the Afghanistan High Peace Council, the Taliban, Pakistan and – as observers – China and the United States. The importance of these talks lies in the fact that it was the first time the Taliban accepted to take part in such discussions with the government of Kabul, that they used to consider an American puppet. And though, interpreting these talks as a sign that the peace deal is around the corner, would be an optimistic overestimate of what the situation actually is, and an unjustified underestimate of the divisions and tensions that exist within each party involved in the process.

First of all, in Afghanistan there are still tough contrasts between Ghani and those politicians – mainly linked to former President Karzai – who condemn the country’s new foreign policy as one that will make Kabul dependent on Pakistan. They criticize Ghani for getting politically closer to a country that has always allowed Taliban to find a safe haven in its south-western region and in cities such as Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar. And this criticism doesn’t only come from Karzai’s entourage but also – and most importantly – from a large portion of the Afghan population – especially in the South, where Taliban traditionally conduct their attacks. Therefore, Ghani’s new approach to the issue of terrorism and to Pakistan doesn’t enjoy full support within his own country, and makes the Afghan side of the talks a divided one. On the one hand, in fact, there is the government, disposed to change the country’s traditional alliances to pursue negotiations with a terrorist group against whom military actions have always proved vain; on the other hand there are the government’s political opponents who condemn a negotiating process that leaves to Pakistan the leading role, and part of the population that, after years of suffering at the hands of the Pakistan-backed Taliban, feels betrayed by the perspective of talks with them. A non-united front, thus, that could curb Ghani’s freedom to propose mutually acceptable arrangements and, therefore, weaken his negotiating position.

More worrying – and threatening – than Afghanistan’s divisions, though, are Pakistan’s.

If Islamabad, in fact, has over the last months publicly stated its support of the Afghanistan-Taliban talks, the truth is that its stance is as ambiguous as ever and the real commitment of its political and military entourage quite dubious and inhomogeneous. On the one hand, there is the position – still to be understood how strong and influential – of those who think that Pakistan, for giving the Taliban a safe haven, has itself paid too high a price in terms of internal terrorist acts, and that the country should now support the talks between Kabul and the Taliban in order to reach regional stability. On the other hand, especially within ISI (the Inter-Services Intelligence) and among some officers of the Pakistan Army, there are those who make an opprobrious distinction between “good” and “bad” terrorists (represented respectively by the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban) and still look at the support given to the Afghan Taliban as an efficient way to limit India’s footprint in Afghanistan, while giving Islamabad influence on the events over its western border.

Such divisions, thus, make it difficult to judge how sincere Pakistan’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table are, and whether Islamabad is seriously looking for a stabilization of the region or just engaging in its latest attempt to widen its influence through a manipulation of the peace process.

But more relevant than the internal opposition Ghani has to face and more relevant than Pakistan’s ambiguity, are the divisions on the Taliban side. Not only are there significant differences between the Quetta Shura and the Taliban Qatar office (that sent no representative to Murree), but also within the Quetta Shura itself cohesion is far from being the norm. Some, such as Mullah Zakir and many young fighters, oppose the peace talks and prefer to continue the war and make the most of the successes achieved during the spring and summer fighting seasons. Others, among whom Mansour, seem instead to recognize that the perspective of establishing again a Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan is nothing more than a utopia and that the only possibility the Taliban have to regain some of their past power is through an arrangement with the government and an inclusion in the existing political system.

These divisions have now been further worsened by the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death – until July 30th known by a few Taliban leaders only – that has opened an internal fight for succession. The main rivals appear to be Mansour – on July 30th elected new leader – and Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoub, who is backed among others by Mullah Zakir. Such internal contrapositions at the leadership level at this point in time can’t but have serious consequences on the peace negotiations. Until the Taliban lack a leader recognized as legitimate by everyone, they risk losing their unity and cohesion, making thus impossible for Kabul to continue with the talks. Proceeding now, in fact, Kabul would inevitably find itself talking with only one part of the group, while leaving out the other(s) -something that would imply for Afghanistan many costs and no benefits. The country and its people would have to pay the double price of making some political concessions to the Taliban engaged in the talks without, though, getting security in return, as those Taliban branches not involved in the negotiations would refuse to recognize any Government-Taliban arrangement and would rather take the arms to undermine the peace process and delegitimize any agreement.

A peace deal is the last card the country can play to come out of a decades-long internal war. The truth, though, is that the deal is based on a triangle made up of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Pakistan, but none of them seem to be internally united nor coherent in its actions and in its approach to the negotiations. The deal, thus, remains for now the chimera it has always been, and it will have a chance of becoming something concrete only when Ghani gets the internal support he needs to push his negotiating initiatives ahead; when Pakistan hardliners manage to realize all the political and economic benefits a regional stability would bring; when the Taliban unite themselves under a single leader capable of seeing how a deal is for the Taliban too the last card they can play to save themselves from vain terrorist acts that bring mujahideens to death but not to Kabul.