Most of the focus in analyzing the abrupt diplomatic rift announced on Sunday between six Arab nations and Qatar has been on the most recent – and frankly, the most minor – events in their feud. Reported hacking incidents have resulted in embarrassment and anger for some of the governments involved, and this is said to have been the last straw in a conflict that is mostly about Qatar’s increasingly cuddly relationship with Iran.
But this proximate explanation really applies only to the Gulf nations that have just cut ties with Doha: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. Yemen, Libya, and Egypt have also joined in the move, and their stakes and interests have a different emphasis. They don’t care what the Emir of Qatar said to Iran about Saudi Arabia, or vice versa.
They do care about their own concerns – and about larger, strategically transformative trends in the region. It’s the latter that I want to look at here. The startling timing of the diplomatic break this week has more to do with the bigger trends than with anything else. The Saudis and the Egyptians, in particular, are making a big strategic move.
Regarding the non-Gulf nations’ own concerns, however, Egypt and Yemen have direct interests in Qatar’s relations with Iran, and – in an interlinked way – Qatar’s sponsorship of transnational and non-national Islamism in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood has long relied on Qatar as a safe base (and source of financing); e.g., for spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Egypt has been especially beset by radical jihadi activism from Muslim Brotherhood groups, and in fact, Mohammed Morsi, the former Egyptian president (in 2012-13) and Muslim Brotherhood hard-liner, had continuing support from Qatar during his short-lived tenure.
Egypt also has obvious concerns about Hamas in Gaza, for which Qatar is de facto one of the biggest supporters. Qatar and Iran have the distinction of being the national sponsors most closely associated with Hamas; Khaled Meshaal and other Hamas leaders have had safe haven in Qatar for several years (although reporting indicates that Doha has just expelled them).
Yemen, meanwhile, faces an Iran-backed insurgency from her Houthi tribal guerrillas, which produced the ongoing civil war. Although Qatar has been involved in the Saudi coalition’s support to the recognized Yemeni government, the al-Thani ruler’s links to Iran put Qatari loyalties and intentions in doubt. Qatar has reportedly been told by the Saudis and Yemenis to get all forces out of the Yemen effort.
The sources of conflict among the Gulf nations have been brewing since at least 2014. The question “Why now?” is compounded by Egypt’s role in the diplomatic break. Why Egypt too? Egypt’s participation is a flashing red light that this isn’t a small thing. Small things, the Saudis would continue to paper over, as they’ve been doing for some time.
This break has the aspect to it of a major strategic move that Riyadh and Cairo are ready for and have decided to make, rather than being a mere gesture of disgust, or a tactic to bring Doha back in line.
The direction to look for enlightenment is straight north from Medina. It’s a complex set of factors in play, but what it boils down to is that the civil war in Syria is rapidly reaching its most decisive point since 2011: the point at which Iran will establish a clear military path from the east into Syria – or will not.
Iran on the move; the “shoot or settle” break is on the horizon
The maneuvering for that Iranian effort is already underway, and it is reaching the critical watershed as we speak. In his biggest strategic move since 2013, Iran’s client Assad is advancing from the west into eastern Syria, while U.S. clients – the Kurds and the Sunni coalition – are respectively advancing south toward Raqqa and holding their beachhead near At-Tanf on the border with Jordan.
The race is thus on between the Iran-Assad coalition and U.S.-backed forces to liberate northeastern Syria from ISIS. Now Iran is marshaling Shia militia forces in Iraq, to move in from the east (see here as well). In fact, at the border village of Um Jaris in the north, where militias moved in over the last couple of weeks and met up with Syrian army units, Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani was reportedly seen with the troops at the end of May – an indication of his personal involvement in the push at the border, and its significance to Iran’s strategic intentions.
Hezbollah, moreover, is reportedly deploying into Daraa, just east of the Golan, completing the Iran-backed pincer around the eastern Syrian battlespace where the U.S.-backed coalition is engaged with ISIS.
All of this is concurrent with, but separate from, the Astana agreement, reached among the parties in early May, to designate “de-escalation” zones in Syria. The officially designated zones were a due-out from Russia, and were formally briefed only today (5 June), which conformed with the original expectation. The de-escalation zones (below) don’t cover or affect the area of the fight for eastern Syria.
In any case, Iran clearly has no intention of letting the de-escalation zones become a de facto partition plan for Syria (a potential outcome much discussed over the last month). And therefore, the Saudis don’t want to accept that either. The Saudis are moving just at this time because of how the final push for eastern Syria is building to a climax – as I type.
The watershed could present itself within weeks, if not days. At that watershed, the U.S. and Russia – the latter ranged with Iran and Assad – will have to decide if we’re all just going to keep shooting in the direction of the threat we’re there to address.
The alternative, in the best case, is that the great powers will arrange for a big table and some real negotiations rather than continued shooting. If ISIS does get rolled up to the point of not effectively holding Syrian territory – no longer being a wild card that postpones all commitments to a long-term settlement – then either the Iranian-backed forces win outright, or the wild rumpus of arm-twisting for an actual settlement must begin.
And that means the fate of the Middle East for the foreseeable future is about to be decided. In the conditions of 2017, settling Syria is settling the Middle East. However long the process, the settlement process in Syria is still the one that will orient everything else in the region.
Iran and Turkey, the looming proto-caliphs
The two most important questions for the Saudis and Egyptians – the concerns they have in common – are what Iran will get out of the settlement, and what role Turkey will have in it. Will Iran get the strategic military access to and through Syria she has been actively angling for since at least 2014? (I’ve written about this push before; e.g., here and here.) If Iran gets that access, she has a clear, “interior line of communication” path to the Western sea – the Mediterranean – something the Persians have not had for more than 2,000 years. Iran will also have a dominating path into Israel.
(The map below is recycled from older posts going back to 2015. Iran’s current rush to mass militia troops at the Iraqi border crossings with Syria represents the fulfillment of a long-pursued plan.)
That and a continued push through Yemen into the Red Sea and Horn of Africa would enable Iran to flank Saudi Arabia, and eventually Egypt as well (from the Med and the Red Sea/Horn of Africa). There are a lot of interim moves and proximate issues involved, but that’s the big picture.
(This map has also been used before; see link above. The moves Iran is making today throughout the region have been previewed at LU, and again, represent the fulfillment of Iranian policy — and the stuff of the Saudis’ greatest strategic concerns. Note: Iran’s influence in Sudan has waned considerably since this map was created.)
Geography is a stern taskmaster; over time, it overrides everything else. The collapse of the century-old “Sykes-Picot” arrangement – only inevitable because of the America-power vacuum under Obama – has meant that the region’s old patterns of geographic aspiration and calculation were certain to kick back in.
Turkey, meanwhile, has interests at two levels. One is dealing with the Kurds. Turkey must retain a veto over the Syrian settlement for that reason alone.
But the other is Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations, which would have him being the go-to partner for any establishment of a proto-caliphate in his neighborhood. He will maneuver relentlessly against anyone else who presumes to claim that role (e.g., for the moment, Iran). Erdogan doesn’t intend to strike triumphalist poses and make himself and Turkey the chief target just yet, but he does plan to emerge as the lead horse in any team effort. (To bolster his strategic position, he is as much absorbed in sedulously re-Ottomanizing his rear in Southeastern Europe as in maneuvering around the Middle East.)
Don’t forget: none of these actors is thinking in terms of inviolate borders. Imagining that Iran sees Syria as Assad’s, and the Syrian border with Iraq – or Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, or even Turkey – as something sacrosanct, is a deluded Westernism. The Saudis and Egyptians certainly prefer the Westphalian benefits of sacrosanct borders, but they mentally inhabit and understand the way the mullahs think, which is also the way Erdogan thinks.
That’s why they see the approaching watershed in far clearer terms than we tend to. What happens in Syria will not stop at Syria’s official borders. It will affect everyone else, and is therefore of immediate interest to the region’s major powers, even if they don’t share borders with Syria.
The Saudis and Egyptians know that moving to the settlement-negotiating phase in Syria is something they need position and influence for – and something they need to interfere with Iran’s position and influence for. They need to do it now, before Iran has established facts on the ground in Syria that only a major operation by the United States could undo.
So what are they trying to accomplish? For starters, I believe that, ideally, they would peel Qatar reliably away from Iran. An internal regime change (“coup”) could be necessary to effect that permanently.
Separating Qatar and Iran could be arranged to interfere with some (not all) of Iran’s most significant collateral plans, such as natural gas earnings from South Pars (which Iran shares with Qatar), and Iran’s new “Sepand” gas field to the west of it.
But they would also peel Qatar away from Turkey. Qatar has been playing all sides, and – as we first noted in 2015 – recently concluded an agreement with Turkey to put a Turkish military outpost in Qatar, on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. It is by no means unimportant to the timing, that Turkey’s parliament took up in May the execution of a plan to deploy up to 600 Turkish troops to Qatar within the year.
That’s some big, game-changing planning going on. In this environment of proto-caliphate activism in the Saudis’ neighborhood, losing the battle to keep Iran from closing the Iran-to-Med circuit all the way through Syria is too big a strategic loss for them to accept without a fight. Iran’s militarily active posture in Iraq is all the evidence needed to prove that Iran isn’t deterred by borders. No border in Saudi Arabia’s neighborhood provides any guarantee of an inviolate perimeter against Iran. Now Turkey too is trying to position-hop and drive down her own stake in the Gulf.
This – a continuation of trends underway since 2011 – is a geostrategic earthquake going on. It’s going to drive even the careful, slow-moving Saudis to do surprising things. It’s what our president calls “yuuge.”
The other major thing the Saudis and Egyptians would do, if they can, is basically force the U.S. to take leadership of the Syria effort at a higher political level than we have to date. Having Qatar in the U.S. coalition, in spite of Qatar’s collaborations with Iran, has been tolerable up to now. The U.S. hasn’t had much of a national strategy or articulated set of interests to speak of. The Saudis would like to make the Qatar situation intolerable, and get it corrected, before we’re all forced by battlefield conditions to go to settlement or start fighting each other.
I think the Saudis and Egyptians would both like to see Qatar restored to the fold, aligned with the Arabs and held in check by the United States. Qatar should not be a gaping wound that requires stepping around in the Middle East; her territory and enterprises should be reliably friendly to the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs instead.
America at the crossroads
Although the U.S. shows no sign as yet of finally taking a proactive political position on the Syria conflict, I wouldn’t bet against that happening now. The same conditions that allowed Qatar to participate while keeping a hand in both sides have allowed us to “intervene” without really intervening.
But the Saudis and Egyptians have just upended those conditions. We will have to choose: whether we keep just reacting to Iran and ISIS, as we have since 2011, or we decide what we want out of the Syria settlement, and start acting like a nation with a corps of diplomats and strategic planners again.
What we want is another story. We do want to block Iran’s path to the Med. But that’s just a defensive goal – and those erode quickly, without the energy of initiative to make them moot. Over time, we can’t sustain pure defense as a political motive. We have to have positive interests in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel.
The time has come to choose what those are. For my money, Saudi Arabia and Egypt decided our hand had better be forced before we all sat down to the table. (It’s also not unimportant that Qatar and Russia have been courtin’ in the last few months, with an eye to adopting common goals in Syria. That, like Iran driving into Syria from the east, is a bridge too far for the Saudis.)
Egyptian and Saudi leaders expect the Trump administration – unlike the Obama administration – to see what’s necessary and take real action, I think. It appears to me that they are prepared to not be in control of or like everything Trump might do. Their real objective, as regards the U.S., is to get him to do something. If they had their druthers, I think Trump would shepherd a diplomatic process to get Qatar in a head-lock – hey, use the huge American military base there as incentive – and harden the alignment of the U.S. coalition in advance of the Syria settlement process, under a set of objectives that would thwart and contain Iran.
When Obama was in office, making the strategic move against Qatar wouldn’t have done any good. It might well have been counterproductive. But whatever else he does, Trump isn’t going to simply sell out to Iran in order to keep our base in Qatar – or to avoid deciding what America’s real priorities are. Getting him more involved is a place to start.