Over the last decade we have seen almost all of the larger Arab countries face a crisis that has significantly weakened their political system; from Egypt to Algeria and from Iraq to Syria. The only strong Arab country that has not faced a serious cris…
The current US administration has clearly adopted an anti-Iranian strategy that is not limited to rhetoric but also includes putting pressure on its allies to assist in isolating Iran.
Prince Tamim of Qatar gave a speech last week thanking the countries that opened air space for Qatari planes, without mentioning Iran. We also saw the recent Kuwaiti diplomatic crisis with Iran, which resulted in the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador and 14 other diplomats for alleged links to a spy and terror cell. The US President has also asked Sultan Qaboos of Oman to help contain Iran’s influence in the region, and observers are carefully witnessing the Saudi attempts to open a dialogue with Iraq as a further attempt to contain Iranian influence.
This coordinated effort is not limited to Iran, but also to its key allies. Recently we saw the US anti-Hezbollah rhetoric reappear as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley urging the U.N. Security Council to acknowledge that Hezbollah “is a destructive terrorist force” and “a major obstacle to peace” that is “dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” This rhetoric harks back to the 2005-2008 policies that targeted the Lebanese party and preceded the July 2006 war against Hezbollah.
This new approach was also seen during the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri’s last visit to Washington and his meeting with President Trump. The likely goal is to isolate Hezbollah and put more pressure on them as new agreements and understandings are being negotiated in Syria.
According to the US National Security Report, Hezbollah has not been listed as a direct threat to the US for the last three years due to its role in fighting terrorist groups. That assessment has clearly shifted as Hezbollah is being leveraged as part of the plan to isolate Iran. We are also likely to see greater US efforts to enforce decisions on Hezbollah and more calls on the militant group to disarm.
These changes in the US’ approach comes at a time where the activity in Syria is reducing, so Hezbollah is increasingly turning its attention back to Lebanon. Over recent years there have been reports that Hezbollah’s weaponization has peaked, including technologically. They have definitely suffered a significant level of casualties both in manpower and financially.
Hezbollah has also seen a shift in the level of support from their key supporter base, including areas that were generally regarded as social incubators for their movement. Yet they have been improving tactically and the soldiers and members they do have are battle hardened and have much more experience than previously from their extensive activities in Syria.
Even though Hezbollah may be facing serious political, social and financial challenges, it is still a serious and well-organized opponent to both the US and Israel. Hezbollah’s main strategy will continue to be based on raising the cost of war on Israel and trying to shift the battle lines south towards the upper Galilee.
It appears we are seeing the anticipatory phase before an inevitable confrontation, as Israel is not willing to accept the increasing threats that Hezbollah represents. Seizing the US strategy of isolating Iran, a fragile Syria and the consensus that many Arab states share on the issue of weakening Hezbollah. All of this suggests that the coming months might bring some attention’s shift from Syria to its neighboring countries.
Dr. Amer Al Sabaileh
A few months ago when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries took a stand against Qatar, it was clear that the crisis is not a short term one. The countries involved have a long history of conflict with Qatar, including recent attempts to influence their policies.
While it is unlikely to be a short-term crisis, there is little suggestion of the potential for military escalation. Rather, it is more likely the next steps will be an escalation of economic and jurisdictional measures against Qatar.
In recent weeks the Qatari Foreign Minister has visited major global capital cities to speak with his counterparts who could influence international decision-making on the issue. The strategy is to demonstrate the Qatari willingness to negotiate on the key issues and to defend themselves against accusations of sponsoring and supporting terrorism.
Also under discussion is likely to have been the potential deepening of Qatari relations with Iran, which goes against the demands of the Gulf States. It is distinctly possible that this is already moving as indicated by events in Syria. Some believe that the recent progress of the Syrian Army and its allies on the ground are a result of the new Qatari position with Iran.
While relations with Iran are a useful political leverage point for Doha, it could easily backfire. Qatar’s strategy is heavily reliant on the US to step in to defend it; deeper relations with Iran are unlikely to lead down a path where the US protects it. Qatar has signed a MOU with the US to support the fight against terrorism; the current US administration may well interpret that to include Iran.
The US appears to be eager to contain the gulf crisis, despite the fact that the Trump administration’s containment plan for Iran is based on increasing pressure and isolation. As such, it will be interesting to watch how Doha pivots back to the US and distance itself from Iran in order to resolve the Gulf crisis.
Qatar’s other ally in Turkey is also struggling both in Syria and within its own borders. The US-Kurdish alliance is causing issues, enough for the Turkish President to publicly criticize its establishment quite bluntly, but to no avail. Internal Turkish politics are heating up with growth in support for opposition parties, internal fragmentation and increased security concerns.
What we are seeing is that Qatar’s two strongest supporters in the Gulf crisis in Iran and Turkey are unlikely to be able to maintain their positions in the longer term. Qatar’s best option is to position with the US as an impartial broker, however that will likely require Doha to accept a large part of the demands from its Gulf neighbors.
Dr. Amer AL Sabaileh
The roots of the tension between Qatar and other GCC countries go back several years to the Arab Spring. During this time, the GCC countries felt that Qatar was playing an active role in feeding the discontent, and the dispute was resolved with the transition of power of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his son Tamim in 2013. As part of this transition, Qatar provided assurances of a shift in the role they played in the region.
The following year, the Gulf countries were not content with the progress and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all withdrew their ambassadors from Doha and called for similar sanctions that have been applied this week, including the cutting of diplomatic ties and closing all land, sea and air borders with the Gulf states.
The events of this week are the culmination of these tensions that have been playing out over the last four years. Qatar is accused of supporting extremism, which they have not made any effort to counter. In fact, Doha has undertaken aggressive media campaigns against Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia through the wide network of media outlets that they sponsor.
The issues with Qatar span the Arab world, as the impacts are felt across the region. The main players have tried over several years to promote change in Qatar, to no end. While it may appear reactionary, this process has been playing out for many years, and Qatar has not sufficiently responded to ease the tensions or address the concerns of their Arab neighbors.
This process of isolating Qatar is part of a systematic plan that is likely to attract international support. The move comes immediately following President Trump’s visit to Riyadh where he called for an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism and radicalism.
These developments place much greater pressure on Qatar to shift its policies and actions. The promises of the past are no longer going to be enough, and Qatar will need to provide concrete actions in order to avoid further complications for its relationships within the region and internationally, which will fundamentally impact on its economy.
From a Jordanian prospective, Jordan is fully aware of the current situation and recognize that it is no longer a Gulf conflict, but one that impacts all Arabs. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt are key strategic allies for Jordan, so it was very logic for Jordan to consider a supportive position on this issue.
Dr. Amer Al Sabaileh