In the aftermath of the Russian intervention on behalf of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his government, Moscow has taken an active role in diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to an end. As time went on following the introduction of Russian military forces, the fortunes of war turned irreversibly in Syria’s favor. Despite temporary setbacks, and a US military response to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons earlier this year it is safe to assume that when the shooting finally ends in Syria, al-Assad will remain in power. The Syrian conflict is winding down, but without a formal diplomatic compromise involving all parties. This is where the problems begin.
The Syrian Conflict is ripe with players, both combatant and non-combatant. A final compromise cannot come about until all of them have an opportunity to carve a piece of the cake off for themselves. Unfortunately, the sheer number of parties involved assures that the mad dash for a piece of the cake will inevitably dissolve into a fight for the last morsel. The peace process promises to be every bit as difficult and bitter as the conflict itself.
Nevertheless, Russia is making a push to begin a fresh round of peace talks later this month in Sochi or possibly on the Russian military base in Latakia, Syria. The conference is being called the “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” and is expected to discuss reconciliation, political reform and other issues that will be of utmost importance in post-war Syria. The newly proposed Syrian constitution will also be discussed. Anti-Assad rebels and other members of the Syrian Opposition are among the invitees, as are the Kurds. The inclusion of the Kurds has been surprising to many in the region. In all previous UN sponsored peace talks there hasn’t been a visible Kurdish involvement.
Turkey and Iran endorsed the Russian plan yesterday. The Syrian National Council, the primary Western-supported opposition group has denounced the effort as an attempt by Moscow to perform an end run around UN-supported peace talks in Geneva. To be fair, UN peace talks have accomplished little, however Russia’s motives are highly suspect. It is no secret that Moscow wants to redraw Syria, and the region in way that is supports Russia’s overall geopolitical goals.
On Monday, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum on an independent Kurdish state. The official results will not be revealed until later in the week, but a vote in favor of independence is expected. For ethnic Kurds, Monday was a historic day and a step closer to achieving their long sought after goal of forming an independent state out of the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq.
Regional, and international reactions to the referendum were generally negative. The nations surrounding Iraqi Kurdistan have rejected the vote and are notably wary of the consequences it could bring. For Iraq, the vote could mean a redrawing of its borders and a redistribution of the nation’s oil wealth. Iran and Turkey are concerned that the vote will inspire their own Kurdish populations to demand more autonomy, something that neither nation is willing to consider. Regional concerns have been paired with saber-rattling from neighboring nations. Today, Iraqi and Turkish forces are staging joint exercises on their shared border. Iran has also held exercises on its border with Iraq and closed off its airspace to aircraft traveling to and from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at the Kurds, warning them that they are risking an ethnic war. He stated that economic sanctions and military action are both possible responses to the referendum. Turkey considers this a national security threat. Ankara has had problems with its own Kurdish population and, like Iran, fears this vote will embolden its own Kurds. Iraq is not thrilled either, as mentioned above. Yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the vote unconstitutional, and ruled out talks on the referendum results with the Kurds.
The United Nations has also taken note of the potential fallout the vote might bring. Secretary General António Guterres warned of the ‘destabilizing effects’ that could result from it. Even the United States could not abstain from voicing its disappointment, voicing its own concerns about the instability that the Kurdish referendum could bring to a region that is already a powder keg.
As the Qatar crisis moves into a new phase with the Saudi deadline being extended by 48 hours, and the Qataris delivering a response to the ultimatum shortly after, it is becoming clear that the United States holds the key to resolving the crisis. All of the involved parties are US allies, and following his visit to the region in May, President Trump wields tremendous influence with the Gulf states. Mediation sponsored by the US would likely be favorable to both Qatar, and the Saudi-led coalition. Unfortunately, the United States is not be ready to assume the role at any point in the near future.
The Trump administration is divided on the Qatar situation right now. At the start of the crisis, President Trump unexpectedly voiced strong support for Saudi Arabia’s actions, and he has remained steadfast in his support since then. For most of June, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis worked tirelessly to defuse the crisis. Tillerson held meetings with senior officials from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other nations involved, urging them to keep the door to negotiations open. However, his efforts have been undermined by Trump’s vocal backing of the Saudis.
If the administration can unify under a somewhat more neutral position, the US is perfectly positioned to play a meaningful role in the crisis. Without a doubt, US interests are best served by a rapid end to the crisis on terms more or less agreeable to all sides. The longer the crisis drags on, it becomes more probable that outside forces will begin to play more dangerous, self-serving roles. Specifically, Iran, and Turkey come to mind. Neither Washington, or Riyadh want this. The difference is that the Saudis firmly believe they can choke Qatar into submission before either Iran or Turkey manage to gain influential political, and economic beachheads in Qatar.
A US backed effort to defuse the crisis through negotiations would go a long way in minimizing Turkish and Iranian influence on the Qataris. Unfortunately, the clock is not a friend of Washington right now, and the Trump administration does not appear to be anywhere close to presenting a united front on the crisis, and taking decisive action to alleviate the situation.
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.