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.

The US-Israel friendship between military agreements and the American elections

The military agreement signed by the US and Israel reinforces not only the military partnership between the two allies but also the tacit support given by Bibi to Trump’s eventual victory

 

Last week, after months of long negotiations and tiring compromises, the US and Israel signed a new military agreement that strengthens their bilateral cooperation in the sector.

 

According to the agreement, which will enter into force in 2019 and will last for a decade, the US will give Israel 3.8 billion $ per year in military support, for a total of 38 billion $ – of which 33 billion devoted to the purchase of armies and munitions and 5 billion destined to missile defense. The agreement implies thus an important increase in terms of financial support, if compared with the 30 billion foreseen in the current agreement and due to expire soon. The latest agreement between the US and Israel –known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)- is indeed the biggest military support ever approved by Washington towards an allied country.

Nevertheless, the agreement did not come without a cost for Israel and Netanyahu’s government, that had not only to renounce the initial request of 45 billion $ in ten years but also had to bend to some provisions that raised voices of criticism in Tel Aviv. In the specific of these provisions, Israel accepted not to seek further financial aid on part of the American Congress over the next ten years and to limit expenditures in the Israeli military industry to give precedence to the American one.

 

The just-signed MOU represents thus an important milestone in the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, but it is also a useful lens through which to read the approach of both Obama and Bibi to the upcoming American Presidential elections.

 

On Obama’s side, many analysts and experts have underlined how the American President invested the last months in reaching an agreement with Israel in order to conclude with a diplomatic victory his political legacy – especially in fields in which he has been widely criticized such as of foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the agreement can be read as the fruit of Obama’s attempt to strengthen the image of the Democratic Party in the eyes of two influence groups of traditional Republican leaning – the arms lobby and the American Jewry. Indeed, the agreement contains provisions that (as seen above) ensure economic advnategs for the American military industry and, being an unprecedented agreement in terms of numbers, it hails the relationship between the Obama administration and those pro-Israel American Jews who have in the past denounced as too cold the President’s approach to Israel.

Specular is then the attempt to delegitimize those voices within the Republican Party that criticize Obama for the tensions that during the years of his mandate have risked damaging the traditional friendship between the US and Israel – a country that large part of the American electorate still regards as Washington’s only reliable ally in the Middle East and as only reliable bulwark against the threat posed by terrorism and radical Islamism.

 

On Netanyahu’s side, instead, the agreement was sought because seen as crucial to preserve the qualitative military superiority of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors and thus ensure the Jewish state’s security and deterrence capacity.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the decision of signing the agreement before Obama goes home rises from the uncertainties that surround the choice of the next American President. At this respect, Netanyahu has thus far refused to take an explicit position (contrary to what he did in 2012 when he was a professed supporter of Romney). Nevertheless, it is plausible to assume that in Tel Aviv the ascent of Trump to the White House is seen more favorably than that of Clinton, whose stance on Israel is deemed by Bibi as not sufficiently different from Obama’s and excessively centered on the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and the condemnation of Israel’s settlements.

Now, the recent military agreement goes to reinforce such assumption.

 

Indeed, as far as Middle Eastern politics and Middle Eastern security dynamics are concerned, Netanyahu and Trump have over the past months revealed to share not few opinions. Just like Bibi, Trump has more than once criticized last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran and he too reads Iran’s economic and political ascent as a major threat to the region’s stability and security. In addition, unlike Clinton, Trump has not made the US-Israel friendship conditional upon Israel retrieveing dialogue with the Palestinians in the framework of a “two-state solution”. Rather, he has even supported Israel’s claim to build further settlements in the West Bank, and scored in this way an important point last week, when Netanyahu to both the Israeli and American public presented the opposition to settlements as a policy of “ethnic cleansing”. As said above, this similarity of positions on part of Netanyahu and Trump is now reinforced by last week’s military agreement. Trump, in fact, has always promoted in his political rhetoric an American foreign policy made of non-intervention and isolationism, and this approach of his goes well with the increased capacity of self-defense that the new agreement gives to Israel and that was largely praised by the head of Israel’s National Security Council. Moreover, the agreement contains provisions that force Israel to buy weapons and munitions from the American military industry. These provisions could thus favor the Trump-Netanyahu relationship if the latter’s desire of securing the best munitions and the best contracts possible led him to seek closer ties with a Republican candidate who is strong of the historical bound between his Party and the arms lobby.

 

Therefore, the military agreement signed last week by Washington and Tel Aviv not only strengthens the US-Israel relationship that in the past few years was more than once questioned, but it also influences Netanyahu’s approach to the American elections.

The Israeli-Turkish deal between geopolitical interests and economic calculations

What led to the most recent deal between Ankara and Turkey and how to make sense of it in a region in constant turmoil, where the lines that link friends and separate enemies are as complex as never before

 

Last Monday, after almost two years of negotiations, Israel and Turkey reached an agreement that will re-establish full diplomatic relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv.

The relations between the two countries were interrupted in 2010, when soldiers of the IDF attacked a Turkish vessel –the Mavi Marmara– that was trying to violate the blockade imposed on the Gaza strip and killed 10 activists who were on board. In a moment in time in which Israeli-Turkish relations were already tense, the episode of the Mavi Marmara was the event that led to the definitive collapse.

Six years of distance, two years of negotiations, and a constant deterioration of the security scenario in the Middle East were necessary to convince Ankara and Tel Aviv of the necessity to retie bounds and reach a deal.

 

The deal, announced on Monday by Netanyahu and Yildrim, does not represent a full success for either party (as it is, after all, the destiny of any credible diplomatic negotiation). Nevertheless, each side managed to have accepted at least some of its most pressing requests and to avoid making too dramatic concessions.

 

Of the three requests it had advanced, Turkey obtained from Israel formal apologies for the Mavi Marmara episode, as well as a compensation of 20 million $ for the families of the victims. Instead, the third request -the lifting of the naval blockade on Gaza- was (unsurprisingly) rejected by Israel. To the Israeli government, in fact, the naval blockade is crucial to escape the risk of weapons ending up in Hamas’ hands and threatening Israel’s national security. However, Ankara obtained the permit to transfer aid to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod, managing in this way to preserve its credibility as defender of the Palestinian cause.

 

On its part, Israel obtained from Turkey the commitment to intervene heavy-handedly against any attempt made by Hamas to hit Israel from Turkish soil. In this way, Netanyahu managed not to damage his own credibility as guarantor of security in the eyes of the Israeli right-wingers and the Likud voters. Similarily, imposing the maintenance of the blockade on Gaza, he succeeded in preserving his image as strong and resolute leader.

Conversely, what caused outrage in the Israeli public opinion and political leadership, is the fact that Netanyahu did not succeed in obtaining from part of Hamas the restitution of the bodies of two IDF soldiers whom had been killed in Gaza in summer 2014, and the fact that he had to give in to the 20 million $ compensation.

 

Despite the criticism, though, the deal is fundamentally balanced, as it does not create winners nor losers. It is the result of a balance of interests and compromises that allowed both governments –at home- to present the deal as a success of foreign policy and –abroad- to strengthen their image and diplomatic stature.

 

Analyzed the terms of the deal, it is now to be asked what led Ankara and Tel Aviv to seek it. Which considerations and which interests are there behind a rapprochement that took six years to materialize?

 

Undoubtedly, the reason that for both countries played a major role is the deterioration of security in the Middle East, where civil wars, failed states, and terrorism have made it clear to Israel and Turkey how necessary it is to sow new bilateral relations and seek new room for cooperation.

 

It has been now almost 5 years, that the Syrian civil war and the collapse of the Iraqi state have been continuously producing for the regions’ security threats and challenges that Israel and Turkey must necessarily deal with.

Turkey, in particular, in the past few years has been observing with fear the rise of Kurdish separatism in Syria, that –like a spark ignited by the Syrian conflict- is now setting on fire Kurdish separatism in Turkey, and thus posing threats to the country’s integrity and security. In this context, it has become crucial for Ankara to to seek a resolution to the conflict that takes into account its own national interests, but the deterioration of relations with Putin’s Russia (only now starting to be improved again) and the failure of Erdogan’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has led Turkey to seek new ties and new friends in the region and to deem it rational a reconciliation with Israel.

 

Tel Aviv, for its part, is interested in the Syrian dynamics because of the way in which the Syrian war has created a fertile soil for the ascent of its historic enemies: Iran and Hezbollah. Active on the Syrian military landscape, indeed, Israel’s enemies (especially Teheran) have obtained not only military successes on the ground but they have also seen their political influence grow, they have obtained more say in the Levant’s developments, and have extended their range of action.

In front of such threat, it has thus become crucial for Israel to counterbalance Iran’s influence and prevent the rise of Hezbollah; and doing so has required Tel Aviv to seek regional partners and to look West towards Turkey.

 

Both Tel Aviv and Ankara, then, have a direct enemy in jihadist terrorism – of which Turkey has become privileged victim over the last year. Confronted with this common threat, a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey has emerged in the two capitals as first and necessary step towards a possible future cooperation in the fight against terrorism, which is perceived by the political class and by the public opinion of both countries as a priority.

 

To these security considerations, then, other calculations need to be added.

For both countries, in fact, the recent deal was motivated not only by geopolitical and geostrategic interests, but –as Netanyahu himself pointed out in presenting the deal to the Israeli public- also by economic calculations.

Indeed, the deal could now make it possible for Israel to sell the gas of which it is abundant to Turkey and –through it- to many European countries.

For its part, Turkey could benefit from buying gas from Israel since this would allow it to diversify its pool of gas suppliers nad become less vulnerable and less dependent on Russian gas.

 

Israel and Turkey have thus more than one single reason to retrieve their diplomatic relations. As seen, interests of national and regional security and economic interests have laid the bases to reach a deal with which Ankara and Tel Aviv are fundamentally trying to see how far can a future multi-dimensional cooperation be led, and how realistic it is to go over a thrust deficit that the developments of the past years require now to overcome.

 

(Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/FLASH90)

 

 

 

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.