JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 10, 2017
Donald Trump in the last few days has given the world a master class on how ignorance and miscalculation by a United States president can trigger conflict and set the stage for war.
Look at what has happened this week since Trump’s pronouncement late last month that the rivalries in the Middle East are a “battle between good and evil.” Trump went on to pillory Iran as the main sponsor of terrorism in the region, and to pledge that the current White House regime is solidly behind the Saudi Arabian faction.
There has been a cascade of events triggered by that speech. It has brought the long-running rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran to boiling point. Even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bullish after winning a referendum to dramatically increase his executive powers, spotted an opportunity to follow his dream of re-establishing the old Ottoman Empire’s patrimony over the Middle East and strode into the ring.
As of today, a regional war is not imminent, but the rival champions are sizing each other up. The possibility of a major conflict is far more likely than it was before Trump’s speech in Riyadh on May 21.
Previous U.S. presidents have always leaned towards supporting Saudi Arabia, on which the U.S. depended until recently for its oil supplies, in the Riyadh monarchy’s rivalry with Iran. But until Trump, the U.S. chief executives maintained a degree of ambiguity in their dealing with Riyadh so as to restrain the House of Saud.
However, the emboldened Riyadh monarchy has interpreted Trump’s speech as a licence to strike out at its enemies. On Monday the Saudi government marshalled its allies Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Bahrain to join in the almost total diplomatic, economic and transportation isolation of the fellow Gulf State of Qatar.
Qatar has been an irritant for the Saudis for years. The emirate is fabulously wealthy from its holds on some of the world’s largest known oil and gas reserves. It has the world’s highest per capita income and the Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, spends lavishly on projects that consume his interest.
One of his preoccupations is the Al Jazeera TV news network, funded from the Qatar state coffers. The English language side of the network was established and staffed by respected, and often well-known, figures from British, U.S., Canadian, and Australian networks, and has a reputation for independent and accomplished journalism.
The Arab language network is another matter, however. It is fiercely anti-Israeli and very pro the most extreme Islamic terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State group, and other hardliners such as Hamas in the Palestinians’ Gaza Strip. It is also deferential towards the puritanical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which briefly held power for a year after elections in mid-2012, until ousted in a military coup.
All these biases reflect the broader leanings of the Emir, who along with his family has been a major source of funds and support for radical Sunni Muslim terrorist groups. So too has the Saudi royal family and its hangers on, but that hasn’t stopped Riyadh getting increasingly irritated by Qatar’s influence.
What particularly gets the Saudi goat is the al-Thani family’s refusal to toe the Riyadh line on opposition to Iran. Indeed, Qatar has often been vocal in its opposition to Saudi goading of Tehran and has called for dialogue instead of political rivalry.
Qatar has good practical reasons for the strong lines of communication it keeps with Tehran. Much of Qatar’s wealth comes from the South Pars natural gas field under the Persian Gulf, whose ownership Doha shares with Tehran. Just the daily management of this vast resource demands open channels of communication.
Riyadh’s immediate justification for launching its sanctions attack on Doha was an article posted briefly on the Qatar News Agency website on May 23. The article quoted the Emir, Sheikh Tamim, as warning against confrontation with Iran in the wake of Trump speech. The story also quoted the Emir as defending the Palestinian group Hamas, and the Lebanese Shia Muslim movement, Hezbollah, which is Tehran’s proxy in the Syrian civil war.
Riyadh trumpeted this article as evidence of Qatari support for terrorists, and gathered its friends in Qatar’s neighbouring states to back the embargo. Trump, in his ignorance, even tweeted support for the move. He called it a major advance in the campaign against the Islamic State group, which is under siege in the territory it holds in the Iraq/Syria border region, and which has inspired recent attacks in Britain, France and Belgium by local jihadists.
However, it now appears from information from various western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies that the posting of the story was a fake, and was planted by hacking of the site, probably by Russia.
In the meantime, though, the juggernaut of Riyadh’s sanctions started rolling. This ostracising is a very serious matter for Qatar. It is a desert nation with almost no agriculture and depends on imports for the bulk of its food supply, most of it coming from or through Saudi Arabia. Doha is also a regional financial centre, and the closing of airspace by all of Qatar’s neighbours has more or less shut down air traffic.
Qatar is a good example of why “hypocrisy” and “irony” are insufficiently potent words to describe Middle Eastern politics.
As well as being a major material supporter of the Islamic State group and other extremist outfits, Qatar is home to the largest U.S. military facility in the Middle East. There are about 10,000 U.S. military personnel at the huge al-Udeid Air Base, from which are launched most of the air and special forces attacks on the terrorists in Syria and Iraq that Qatar is funding. The Saudi embargo has given the Americans the very practical problem that military liaison officers from neighbouring Gulf States may no longer come to al-Udeid.
Qatar’s ability to walk in opposition directions on both sides of the street doesn’t stop there. While Doha is promoting links with Iran, it is also part of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran and who have taken over most of the country.
By mid-week, Kuwait had offered to broker some kind of resolution between Riyadh and Doha. If that happens, Doha will have little option but to capitulate on most Saudi demands, especially on reining in Al Jazeera.
But on Wednesday there was another significant shift in the state of the game board. In a special night-time session the Turkish parliament rushed through legislation allowing the Turkish army to conduct joint military exercises with Qatar and for Turkish police to train their Qatari counterparts. This adds to Turkey’s establishment a year ago of a military base in Qatar where 3,000 Turkish troops are stationed.
The move by the Ankara parliament followed a speech on Tuesday evening by President Erdogan in which he said “I want to clearly say that we disapprove of the sanctions on Qatar.” Erdogan’s statement followed a round of telephone calls with all the leaders involved in which he tried to act as a peace broker. His decision to come down on the side of Qatar apparently came after he decided there was no peace to be brokered.
Erdogan and Sheikh Tamim share views on several issues, especially their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a puritanical Islamic group active throughout the region, but mainly in Egypt. The Brotherhood, along with the even more radical Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, who benefit from the patronage of the royal family, are the main theological inspiration for the leading terrorist groups of recent years from al-Qaida to the Islamic State.
Although Turkey and Qatar are both adherents to the Sunni faction of Islam, they share a desire to keep open relations with Iran, which champions the rival Shia Muslim code. This illustrates well that the tendency from outside to define the divides in the Middle East purely along the religious lines of Sunni and Shia factions is overly simplistic. When all is said and done, the divides in the Middle East are the age-old ones of money and power.
For Erdogan, a major reason for a working relationship with Iran is Turkey’s perennial problem, largely self-inflicted, of its Kurdish minority. The 35 million Kurds live in eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northern Iran. They are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation state, but there are active hopes and expectations that if and when the dust settles in the Middle East, there will be a new, internationally recognized Kurdish state.
There has been a de facto independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. This week the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced he intends to hold a referendum on independence on September 25.
Turkish president Erdogan has had generally good and functional relations with Barzani, who has helped him contain the Turkish Kurds. But this week Erdogan warned the Iraqi Kurds against seeking independence. Erdogan fears that if a Kurdistan is established in what is now northern Iraq it will further fuel the already blazing campaign for independence among the 14.5 million Turkish Kurds and the secession of Turkey’s eastern Kurdish region. Iran has similar concerns about its six million Kurds, which give Tehran a natural joint interest with Ankara.
Erdogan is already uneasy about the use by the U.S., Canada and other western states of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as the main frontline troops against the Islamic State fighters. The Turkish leader regards the Syrian Kurds in particular as indistinguishable from his own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, whom he sees as terrorists.
Erdogan’s military actions in the Syrian civil war have been aimed just as much at the Syrian Kurds as they have at the troops of President Bashar al-Assad and the Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon aiding him with Iran’s support. Indeed, on several occasions U.S. forces have put themselves in positions to prevent Erdogan’s troops from attacking the Syrian Kurds.
Events came thick and fast on Wednesday. Most dramatic were simultaneous terrorist attacks in Tehran on the Iranian parliament and mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khmoeini, who led the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and established the Islamic Republic. At least 17 people were killed and over 40 injured in the attacks by six terrorist, all Iranians, who were killed after lengthy gun battles. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there is evidence some of the terrorists had fought with the group in Syria and Iraq.
The timing of the attack was undoubtedly mostly to do with the Islamic State group trying to boost and burnish its image as it steadily looses territory and control of cities like Mosul and Raqqa. It is highly unlikely the Islamic State could have organized the Tehran attacks fast enough to be responses to the events earlier in the week. But the group had great luck with the timing. The attacks inevitably were meshed into the script of Trump’s speech, rampant Saudi Arabia, and the demonizing of Qatar.
There is a conviction among Iranian security and intelligence agencies that the Islamic State group and all other Sunni-inspired terrorist organizations are creations of Saudi Arabia. It’s a conviction for which there is good historic evidence, though the information on current official support by Riyadh is less definitive.
So it was inevitable that Iran would interpret Wednesday’s terrorist attacks on Tehran as retribution by Saudi Arabia for Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. The attack is also seen in Tehran as a test of Iran’s resolve in the face of Trump’s granting of a free licence to Riyadh.
In a statement, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the country’s most powerful military force which is overseeing much of the Assad regime’s fight against the Islamic State and other rebel groups in Syria, blamed Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for the attacks. “We will avenge the blood of those martyred in today’s terrorism attacks,” said Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Guards Corps.
Thus the stage is set for Act Two of the drama unfolding from Trump’s speech. As this action-packed week has shown, the Middle East story is spinning erratically and unpredictably, with actors from major, minor and even sub-plots suddenly appearing at centre stage.
Sadly, there are no signs that Trump has learned anything from four months as a tenant of the Oval Office. There is little reason to hope he will grasp the reality that what the President of the United States says, the words he uses and the sentiments he adopts are matters of life and death for many people.
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Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017
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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.
Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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