Tag Archives: Muslim Brotherhood

The Tortured Politics behind the Persian Gulf Crisis

Middle East Chaos

Dispatches From The Edge

June 14, 2017

 

 

The splintering of the powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) into warring camps—with Qatar, supported by Turkey and Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), supported by Egypt, on the other—has less to do with disagreements over foreign policy and religion than with internal political and economic developments in the Middle East. The ostensible rationale the GCC gave on June 4 for breaking relations with Qatar and placing the tiny country under a blockade is that Doha is aiding “terrorist’ organizations. The real reasons are considerably more complex, particularly among the major players.

 

Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn once described the Syrian civil war as a three-dimensional chess game with five players and no rules. In the case of the Qatar crisis, the players have doubled and abandoned the symmetry of the chessboard for “Go,” Mahjong, and Bridge.

 

Tensions among members of the GCC are longstanding. In the case of Qatar, they date back to 1995, when the father of the current ruler, Emir Tamin Al Thani, shoved his own father out of power. According Simon Henderson to of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE “regarded the family coup as a dangerous precedent to Gulf ruling families” and tried to organize a counter coup. The coup was exposed, however, and called off.

 

Riyadh is demanding that Qatar sever relations with Iran—an improbable outcome given that the two countries share a natural gas field in the Persian Gulf—and end Doha’s cozy ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, if there is any entity in the Middle East that the Saudis hate—and fear—more than Iran, it is the Brotherhood. Riyadh was instrumental in the 2013 overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt and has allied itself with the Israelis to marginalize Hamas, the Palestinian version of the Brotherhood that dominates Gaza.

 

But fault lines in the GCC do not run only between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Oman, at the Gulf’s mouth, has always marched to its own drummer, maintaining close ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Iran, and refusing to go along with Riyadh’s war against the Houthi in Yemen. Kuwait has also balked at Saudi dominance of the GCC, has refused to join the blockade against Doha, and is trying to play mediator in the current crisis.

 

The siege of Qatar was launched shortly after Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, when the Saudi’s put on a show for the U.S. President that was over the top even by the monarchy’s standards. Wooed with massive billboards and garish sword dances, Trump soaked up the Saudi’s view of the Middle East, attacked Iran as a supporter of terrorism and apparently green-lighted the blockade of Qatar. He even tried to take credit for it.

 

Saudi Arabia, backed by Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, along with a cast of minor players, made 13 demands on Doha that it could only meet by abandoning its sovereignty. They range from the impossible—end all contacts with Iran—to the improbable—close the Turkish base—to the unlikely—dismantle the popular and lucrative media giant, Al Jazeera. The “terrorists” Doha is accused of supporting are the Brotherhood, which the Saudi’s and the Egyptians consider a terrorist organization, an opinion not shared by the U.S. or the European Union.

 

On the surface this is about Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shiite Iran, but while religious differences do play an important role in recruiting and motivating some of the players, this is not a battle over a schism in Islam. Most importantly, it is not about “terrorism,” since many of the countries involved are up to their elbows in supporting extremist organizations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s reactionary Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is the root ideology for groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, and all the parties are backing a variety of extremists in Syria and Libya’s civil wars.

 

The attack on Qatar is part of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive new foreign policy that is being led by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. Since being declared “monarch-in-waiting” by King Salman Al Saud, Mohammed has launched a disastrous war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 civilians, sparked a country-wide cholera epidemic, and drains at least $700 million a month from Saudi Arabia’s treasury. Given the depressed price for oil and a growing population—70 percent of which is under 30 and much of it unemployed—it is not a cost the monarchy can continue to sustain, especially with the Saudi economy falling into recession.

 

Underlying the Saudi’s new-found aggression is fear. First, fear that the kind of Islamic governance modeled by the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat to the absolutism of the Gulf monarchs. Fear that Iran’s nuclear pact with the U.S., the EU and the UN is allowing Tehran to break out of its economic isolation and turn itself into a rival power center in the Middle East. And fear that anything but a united front by the GCC—led by Riyadh—will encourage the House of Saud’s internal and external critics.

 

So far, the attempt to blockade Qatar has been more an annoyance than a serious threat to Doha. Turkey and Iran are pouring supplies into Qatar, and the Turks are deploying up to 1,000 troops at a base near the capital. There are also some 10,000 U.S. troops at Qatar’s Al Udeid Airfield, Washington’s largest base in the Middle East and one central to the war on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Any invasion aimed at overthrowing the Qatar regime risks a clash with Turkey and the U.S.

 

While Egypt is part of the anti-Qatari alliance—the Egyptians are angry at Doha for not supporting Cairo’s side in the Libyan civil war, and the Egyptian regime also hates the Brotherhood—it is hardly an enthusiastic ally. Saudi Arabia keeps Egypt’s economy afloat, and so long as the Riyadh keeps writing checks, Cairo is on board. But Egypt is keeping the Yemen war at arm’s length—it flat out refused to contribute troops and is not comfortable with Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam. Cairo is currently in a nasty fight with its own Wahhabist-inspired extremists. Egypt also maintains diplomatic relations with Iran.

 

Besides the UAE, the other Saud allies don’t count for much in this fight. Sudan will send troops—if Riyadh pays for them—but not very many. Bahrain is on board, but only because the Saudi and UAE armies are sitting on local Shiite opposition. Yemen and Libya are part of the anti-Qatar alliance, but both are essentially failed states. And while the Maldives is a nice place to vacation, it doesn’t have a lot of weight to throw around.

 

On the other hand, long-time Saudi ally Pakistan has made it clear it is not part of this blockade, nor will it break with Qatar or downgrade relations with Iran. When Riyadh asked for Pakistan troops in Yemen, the national parliament voted unanimously to have nothing to do with Riyadh’s jihad on the poorest country in the Middle East.

 

The largely Muslim nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are also maintaining relations with Qatar, and Saudi ally Morocco offered to send food to Doha. In brief, it is not clear who is more isolated here.

 

While President Trump supports the Saudis, his Defense Department and State Department are working to resolve the crisis. U.S. Sec. of State Rex Tillerson just finished a trip to the Gulf in an effort to end the blockade, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is threatening to hold up arms sales to Riyadh unless the dispute is resolved. The latter is no minor threat. Saudi Arabia would have serious difficulties carrying out the war in Yemen without U.S. weaponry.

 

And the reverse of the coin?

 

Doha’s allies have a variety of agendas, not all of which mesh.

 

Iran has correct, but hardly warm, relations with Qatar. Both countries need to cooperate to exploit the South Pars gas field, and Tehran appreciated that Doha was always a reluctant member of the anti-Iran coalition, telling the U.S. it could not use Qatari bases to attack Iran.

 

Iran is certainly interested in anything that divides the GCC. The Iranians would also like Qatar to invest in upgrading Iran’s energy industry and maybe cutting them in on the $177 billion in construction projects that Doha is lining up in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup Games. Also, some 30,000 Iranians live in Qatar.

 

Figuring out Turkey these days can reduce one to reading tea leaves.

 

On one hand, Ankara’s support for Qatar seems obvious. Qatar backs the Brotherhood, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is a Turkish variety of the Brotherhood, albeit one focused more on power than ideology. Erdogan was a strong supporter of the Egyptian Brotherhood and relations between Cairo and Ankara went into the deep freeze when Egypt’s military overthrew the Islamist organization.

 

Qatar is also an important source of finances for Ankara, whose fragile economy needs every bit of help it can get. Turkey’s large construction industry would like to land some of the multi-billion construction contracts the World Cup games will generate. Turkish construction projects in Qatar already amount to $13.7 billion.

 

On the other hand, Turkey is also trying to woo Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies for their investments. Erdogan even joined in the GCC’s attacks on Iran last spring, accusing Tehran of “Persian nationalist expansion,” a comment that distressed Turkey’s business community. As the sanctions on Iran ease, Turkish firms see that country’s big, well-educated population as a potential gold mine.

 

The Turkish President has since turned down the anti-Iran rhetoric, and Ankara and Tehran have been consulting over the Qatar crisis. The first supportive phone call Erdogan took during the attempted coup last year was from Qatar’s emir, and the prickly Turkish President has not forgotten that some other GCC members were silent for several days. Erdogan recently suggested that the UAE had a hand in the coup.

 

Is this personal for Turkey’s president? No, but Erdogan is the Middle East leader who most resembles Donald Trump: he shoots from the hip and holds grudges. The difference is that he is far smarter and better informed than the U.S. President and knows when to cut his losses.

 

His apology to the Russians after shooting down one of their fighter-bombers is a case in point. Erdogan first threatened Moscow with war, but eventually trotted off to St. Petersburg, hat in hand, to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And after hinting that the Americans were behind the 2016 coup, he recently met with Tillerson in Istanbul to smooth things out. Turkey recognizes that it will need Moscow and Washington to settle the war in Syria.

 

The Russians have been carefully neutral, consulted with Turkey and Iran, and have called on all parties to peacefully resolve their differences.

 

There is not likely to be a quick end to the Qatar crisis, because Saudi Arabia keeps doubling down on one disastrous foreign policy decision after another, including breaking up the Arab world’s only viable economic bloc. But there are developments in the region that may eventually force Riyadh to back off.

 

The Syrian War looks like it is headed for a solution, although the outcome is anything but certain. The Yemen War has reached crisis proportions—the UN describes it as the number one human emergency on the globe—and pressure is growing for the U.S. and Britain to wind down their support for the Saudi alliance. And Iran is slowly but steadily reclaiming its role as a leading force in the Middle East and Central Asia.

 

There is much that could go wrong. There could be a disastrous war with Iran, currently being pushed by Saudi Arabia, Israel and neo-conservatives in the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and Turkey could fall out over Syria. The Middle East is an easy place to get into trouble. But if there are dangers, so too are there possibilities, and from those spring hope.

 

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Middle East Plots

Middle East: Dark Plots Afoot?

Dispatches From The Edge

June 8, 2015

 

A quiet meeting this past March in Saudi Arabia, and a recent anonymous leak from the Israeli military, set the stage for what may be a new and wider war in the Middle East.

 

Gathering in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh were Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, newly crowned Saudi King Salman, and the organizer of the get-together, the emir of Qatar. The meeting was an opportunity for Turkey and the Saudis to bury a hatchet over Ankara’s support — which Riyadh’s opposes — to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to agree to cooperate in overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

 

Taking Aim at Assad

 

The pact prioritized the defeat of the Damascus regime over the threat posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and aims to checkmate Iranian influence in the region. However, the Turks and the Saudis are not quite on the same page when it comes to Iran: Turkey sees future business opportunities when the sanctions against Teheran end, while Riyadh sees Iran as nothing but a major regional rival.

 

The Turkish-Saudi axis means that Turkish weapons, bomb making supplies, and intelligence, accompanied by lots of Saudi money, are openly flowing to extremist groups like the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both now united in the so-called “Army of Conquest.”

 

The new alliance has created a certain amount of friction with the United States, which would also like to overthrow Assad but for the time being is focused on attacking the Islamic State and on inking a nuclear agreement with Iran. This could change, however, because the Obama administration is divided on how deeply it wants to get entangled in Syria. If Washington decides to supply anti-aircraft weapons to the Army of Conquest, it will mean the United States as thrown in its lot with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and that the “war on terror” is taking a backseat to regime change in Syria.

 

Not that the Americans are overly concerned about aiding and abetting Islamic extremists. While the U.S. is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration is also training Syrians to overthrow Assad, which objectively puts them in the extremist camp vis-à-vis the Damascus regime. Washington is also aiding the Saudis’ war on the Houthis in Yemen. Yet the Houthis are the most effective Yemeni opponents of the Islamic State and the group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, against which the United States is waging a drone war.

 

The Turkish-Saudi alliance seems to have already made a difference in the Syrian civil war. After some initial successes last year against divided opponents, the Syrian government has suffered some sharp defeats in the past few months and appears to be regrouping to defend its base of support in the coastal regions and the cities of Homs, Hama, and Damascus. While the Syrian government has lost over half of the country to the insurgents, it still controls up to 60 percent of the population.

 

Turkey has long been a major conduit for weapons, supplies, and fighters for the anti-Assad forces, and Saudi Arabia and most of its allies in the Gulf Coordination Council, representing the monarchies of the Middle East, have funneled money to the insurgents. But Saudi Arabia has always viewed the Muslim Brotherhood — which has a significant presence in Syria and in countries throughout the region— as a threat to its own monarchy.

 

The fact that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party is an offshoot of the Brotherhood has caused friction with the Saudis. For instance, while Turkey denounced the military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Saudi Arabia essentially bankrolled the takeover and continues to bail Cairo out of economic trouble.

 

But all that was water under the bridge when it came to getting rid of Assad. The Turks and the Saudis have established a joint command center in the newly conquered Syrian province of Idlib and have begun pulling the kaleidoscope of Assad opponents into a cohesive force.

 

A War on Hezbollah?

 

Three years of civil war has whittled the Syrian Army from 250,000 in 2011 to around 125,000 today, but Damascus is bolstered by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters. The Lebanese Shiite organization that fought Israel to a draw in 2006 is among the Assad regime’s most competent forces.

 

Which is where the Israeli leak comes in.

 

The timing of the story — published on May 12 in The New York Times — was certainly odd, as was the prominence given a story based entirely on unnamed “senior Israeli officials.” If the source was obscured, the message was clear: “We will hit Hezbollah hard, while making every effort to limit civilian casualties as much as we can,” the official said. But “we do not intend to stand by helplessly in the face of rocket attacks.”

 

The essence of the article was that Hezbollah is using civilians as shields in southern Lebanon, and the Israelis intended to blast the group regardless of whether civilians are present or not.

 

This is hardly breaking news. The Israeli military made exactly the same claim in its 2008-09 “Cast Lead” attack on Gaza and again in last year’s “Protective Edge” assault on the same embattled strip. It is currently under investigation by the United Nations for possible war crimes involving the targeting of civilians.

 

Nor is it the first time Israel has said the same thing about Hezbollah in Lebanon. In his Salon article entitled “The ‘hiding among civilians’ myth,” Beirut-based writer and photographer Mitch Prothero found that “This claim [of hiding among civilians] is almost always false.” Indeed, says Prothero, Hezbollah fighters avoid mingling with civilians because they know “they will sooner or later be betrayed by collaborators — as so many Palestinian militants have been.”

 

But why is the Israeli military talking about a war with Lebanon? The border is quiet. There have been a few incidents, but nothing major. Hezbollah has made it clear that it has no intention of starting a war, though it warns Tel Aviv that it’s quite capable of fighting one. The most likely answer is that the Israelis are coordinating their actions with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

 

Tel Aviv has essentially formed a de facto alliance with Riyadh to block a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. Israel is also supporting Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen and has an informal agreement with Riyadh and Ankara to back the anti-Assad forces in Syria.

 

Israel is taking wounded Nusra Front fighters across the southern Syrian border for medical treatment. It’s also bombed Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. In one incident, it killed several Hezbollah members and an Iranian general advising the Syrian government.

 

The Realm of Uncertainty

 

The Saudis have pushed the argument that Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are really about Iranian expansionism and the age-old clash between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Hezbollah is indeed a Shiite organization, and the majority of Iraqis are also members of the sect. Assad’s regime is closely associated with the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, and the Houthis in Yemen are a variety of the sect as well.

 

However, the wars in the Middle East are about secular power, not divine authority — although sectarian division is a useful recruiting device. As for “Iranian aggression,” it was the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States, that started the modern round of Sunni-Shiite bloodletting when Iraq invaded Iran in 1981.

 

If the Israeli Army attacks southern Lebanon, Hezbollah will be forced to bring some of its troops home from Syria, thus weakening the Syrian Army at a time when it’s already hard pressed by newly united rebel forces. In short, it would be a two-front war that would tie down Hezbollah, smash up southern Lebanon, and lead to the possible collapse of the Assad regime.

 

As Karl von Clausewitz once noted, however, war is the realm of uncertainty. All that one can really determine is who fires the first shot. That the Israelis can pulverize scores of villages in southern Lebanon and kill lots of Shiites, there is no question. They’ve done it before. But a ground invasion may be very expensive, and the idea that they could “defeat” Hezbollah is a pipe dream. Shiites make up 40 percent of Lebanon’s ethnic mélange and dominate the country’s south. Hezbollah has support among other communities as well, in part because they successfully resisted the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation and bloodied Tel Aviv in the 2006 invasion.

 

An Israeli attack on Hezbollah, however, would almost certainly re-ignite Lebanon’s civil war, while bolstering the power of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The Turks might think that al-Qaeda is no threat to them, but recent history should give them pause.

 

Creating something like the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya is not terribly difficult. Controlling them is altogether another matter.

 

“It Always Seems to Blow Back”

 

“Every power in the Middle East has tried to harness the power of the Islamists to their own end,” says Joshua Landis, director of Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University, but “it always seems to blow back.”

 

The Afghan Mujahedeen created the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the U.S. invasion of Iraq spawned the Islamic State, and Libya has collapsed into a safe haven for radical Islamic groups. Erdogan may think the Justice and Development Party’s Islamic credentials will shield Turkey from a Syrian ricochet, but many of these groups consider Erdogan an apostate for playing democratic politics in secular institutions.

 

Indeed, up to 5,000 Turkish young people have volunteered to fight in Syria and Iraq. Eventually they will take the skills and ideology they learned on the battlefield back to Turkey, and Erdogan may come to regret his fixation with overthrowing Assad.

 

While it hard to imagine a Middle East more chaotic than it is today, if the Army of Conquest succeeds in overthrowing the Assad government, and Israel attacks Lebanon, “chaos” will be an understatement.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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