Qatar’s rejection of the demands issued by Saudi Arabia and its allies last week was widely expected and surprised few observers. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vocal support of the Qatari decision was not unforeseen either. However, the increasing role Turkey is taking in this crisis continues to raise eyebrows and questions. Erdogan labeled the ultimatum as being contrary to international law. The demand for Qatar to remove Turkish military personnel from its territory drew particular ire from Erdogan. He called the demand ‘disrespectful’ and stated that Turkey did not require permission to live up to its defense cooperation commitments.
Qatar and Turkey’s relationship was growing closer long before this crisis broke out at the beginning of the month. Both nations have similar ideologies and stances on regional issues. Neither considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization. The military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi in Egypt was strongly condemned by both Ankara and Doha, and the two nations share the same approach towards Iran. Following the failed coup in Turkey last year, Qatar’s emir was the first international leader to come out publicly in support of Erdogan. With Turkey’s increasing isolation on the international front, Qatar is considered a key ally.
So, the question is: how will Turkey’s involvement in this crisis play out? Although it is standing firmly beside Qatar, Erdogan does not want his nation to be regarded as anti-Saudi Arabia. Despite this hope, Riyadh’s demand that Turkish troops leave Qatar makes it clear the Saudis do not view Turkey as a positive influence in the region. Erdogan’s outspoken rhetoric, and bold actions since the crisis began has made the Saudi-led coalition suspicious of Turkey’s true intentions. Many diplomats feel its ultimate goal is to acquire permanent influence in regional matters, and that is an unappetizing prospect given Turkey’s stance on the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its perceived pro-Iran policies.
A major concern is what will happen if the current crisis leads to a coup in Doha, or a military confrontation. Will Turkey support Qatar militarily against Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt? If Ankara decides to do it, what will the consequences be for Turkey’s relationship with the United States and NATO? Erdogan would be wise to consider these points as he attempts to embed himself and his nation deeper in this crisis.
The economic and diplomatic blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and a select group of its allies is two and a half weeks old. Neither side has made much of an effort to alleviate the crisis. In fact, Doha and Riyadh seem to have used the time to dig their heels in even deeper. Attempts at mediation by Kuwait and other regional nations have resulted in nothing substantial. Vociferous Turkish support for Qatar, though self-serving, has served only to stoke the flames of anger and suspicion in Riyadh even more. The crisis has taken a back seat to other global matters and crises over time. The prime reason for this has been Saudi Arabia’s failure to present and explain its grievances with Qatar to the rest of the world.
As of today, however, that has changed. Today the Saudis delivered an ultimatum to Qatar, laying out in detail the terms Doha must agree to for the blockade to be lifted. The terms are heavy-handed, to say the least. The list of thirteen points include stipulations that Qatar shut down al-Jazeera, minimize its ties with Iran, remove Turkish troops from Qatari soil, and break off its relationship with groups that the Saudis and their anti-Qatari coalition consider to be terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has been given ten days to comply with the terms or else face undefined consequences.
Essentially, this is a list of demands, not so different from what a criminal gives to police when he finds himself barricaded with hostages. In that respect, this crisis has a few similarities with a hostage situation. The Saudis intentions here are as crucial as their actions. Riyadh could have made the terms so imposing in order to create room for negotiation and meet the Qataris somewhere in the middle. But the ultimatum could also be entirely straightforward and sincere. The Saudi terms do appear to mirror the laundry list of complaints that Riyadh, and its allies, have compiled against Qatar.
That being said, the demands are not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. Western nations are treading carefully through this diplomatic minefield, especially the United States. The US wants to see this crisis resolved amicably, as Washington understands that the longer it goes on, the greater the chance that Qatar will eventually align itself with Iran. At the same time, it wants to see the grievances between Qatar and its Gulf allies and neighbors resolved once and for all.
Saudi King Salman decided that it was time for change in Riyadh. As the kingdom contends with low oil prices, Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and conflicts across the Middle East, Salman has made a change in the royal line of succession. Saudi Arabia now has a new crown prince. Gone is Mohammed bin Nayef who served in the post since April of 2015. His replacement will be Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31 year old son of the current king.
Nayef has been stripped of his responsibilities by royal decree. The former crown prince often marched to the beat of his own drummer, so to speak. He frequently spoke to the media, something which is in stark contrast to the traditions of the Saudi royal family. This behavior rankled some senior members of the royal family, as did his perceived feet dragging during the first months of Operation Decisive Storm, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Rumors swirled around Riyadh for quite some time that his days were numbered and replacement imminent.
That day has come. Although young, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has developed a reputation as hard working. Following his father taking the reins of power, the younger Salman emerged from obscurity. He was handed large responsibilities and afforded vast power in what now appears to have been a grooming period for this specific moment. He served as the minister of defense, playing a major role in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen operations. It is hoped by many in the corridors of power in Riyadh that his ascension will strike a positive chord with the kingdom’s younger population. He does have his critics though, who see the new crown prince as inexperienced and power hungry. With the close scrutiny that comes with his new role, the real Mohammed bin Salman will be uncovered rather quickly.
Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an attempted transformation. The kingdom is seeking to shed the cumbersome dynamics that have accompanied its domestic and foreign policy decision making for decades. King Salman wants to create a more dynamic and assertive kingdom. The Yemen intervention, and more recently the orchestrated blockade of Qatar are prime examples. Ironically, it has been a new administration in the US which has provided the impetus for the kingdom’s recent behavior changes. The policies and goals of the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia clashed far more often than they aligned. This brought about friction and a lack of understanding at a time when a more cohesive US-Saudi relationship was needed. Now, King Salman understands that President Trump now provides the kingdom with the solid ally it has desperately sought from the US since 2008, and the motivation to remodel its foreign policy machinations in order to function more closely with the United States.
Since September of 2015 the skies over Syria have been crowded with combat aircraft from multiple nations. Russia, Syria, and the nations of the US-led coalition fly sorties on a daily basis, often in close proximity to each other. The threat of an accident or inadvertent incident has been a serious possibility since then. The Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 Fencer in November, 2015 highlighted the dangers present in and around Syrian airspace. Deconfliction measures were taken between the US and Russia to minimize the possibility of a chance encounter between US and Russian warplanes, including a hotline that officials can use to inform the other side of air operations taking place in specific areas at certain times. Although there have been a handful of close calls, the deconfliction measures have largely been successful.
Unfortunately, the Syrian Air Force has been operating in willful ignorance of the rules. Yesterday, it paid the price when a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter after it dropped ordnance on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the vicinity of Tabqa, Syria. The US fighter acted within the active rules of engagement which include self-defense, and the defense of forces belonging to coalition partners. SDF fighters are considered coalition-partnered forces.
Russia has reacted angrily to the shootdown, considering it to be an act of aggression. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Defense Minister stated today that his country will now consider US planes to be threats when flying over certain regions of Syria. All US and coalition aircraft east of the Euphrates river will be actively targeted, according to Shoygu’s statement. In addition, all deconfliction efforts will be suspended.
If the Russians hold firm on these promises, the skies over Syria are about to become even more dangerous and the Syrian conflict is now on the doorstep of a major escalation. There is a very real danger of clashes between US and Russian warplanes happening in the coming days if things remain as they are right now.
It all boils down to how far Russia is willing to go in backing its Syrian allies. If Moscow concludes that Syria is worth a confrontation and potential war with the US, expect Russia to push the US even farther as the week unfolds.
The European Commission has begun legal proceedings against three EU member-states who have not taken in refugees as per the 2015 plan to relocate migrants then located in Italy and Greece. The governments of Poland and Hungary have refused to take refugees in. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people, then informed the EU it would not accept any more. The EU plan was intended to relocate 120,000 refugees, but so far less than 20,000 have been moved. The plan was opposed bitterly by some EU members in 2015, yet ended up being pushed through. Not surprisingly, the strongest resistance came from central and eastern European member-states.
The actions announced by Brussels are infringement proceedings. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic will face large fines if they are found in fault, or cuts in EU funding. Whether or not the three nations pay the fines is another matter entirely. Poland especially has been outspoken in defense of its migration policies. Polish government officials have confirmed more than once that it will fight the legal proceedings. It does not appear that Poland is prepared to back down from the EU action. Hungary and the Czechs have also remained staunch in the face of threats and action by Brussels.
This matter has the potential to expand into a major issue as the year goes on. With Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron coming together and expanding their influence in all things EU, Eastern Europe’s defiance could be a challenge for them to confront. Although the nations of Eastern Europe are all EU members, most are aligned more closely Washington than they are to Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. The ‘Old Europe-New Europe’ argument that was sparked by comments by then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 has long simmered below the surface of US-EU relations. Merkel and Macron could decide to use Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic’s reluctance to accept refugees as justification to attempt and reassert the power and influence of Brussels and highlight Washington’s inability to influence matters that are strictly EU in nature.
This is certainly a situation to keep an eye in the future.