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.
Kuwait’s attempt to mediate the regional crisis involving Qatar and some of its neighbors is bearing fruit. Today, Kuwait announced that Qatar is ready to sit down and listen to the grievances and claims of its fellow Gulf States, and Egypt. The crisis began when several Arab nations announced they are severing diplomatic ties with the tiny emirate over Qatar’s alleged support of select terrorist groups, some of which are backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia, the leader of the effort, closed its border with Qatar and sealed off air, sea, and land contact, essentially isolating the smaller nation. Since last Monday, Qatar has begun to feel the pinch of the imposed isolation. The Qatari stock market has fallen 8% on fears of food, medicine, and other goods shortages coming in the near future if the crisis continues. Qatari Airlines, the largest air carrier in the region has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia and other nations that have taken similar actions against it.
As last week went on, the rift appeared to deepen. Qatar remained defiant, refuting the Saudi claims and not making any moves which could be construed as admitting guilt. From outside the region, a number of nations urged caution and offered to serve as mediators to bring both sides to the table. It is best, however, that Kuwait’s offer is the one being acted upon. This dispute is largely ‘in-house’ and should be resolved by the Gulf states. Kuwait’s first attempt at mediation last week failed. However, with the crisis showing no signs of ending in the near future, Qatar is using Kuwait’s second attempt to gain some breathing room. The fact that it is willing to sit down and hold discussions is a step towards an eventual reconciling the broken relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and other nations.
The world has taken notice of the situation and concern is growing. The consensus is that a swift end to the situation is beneficial for all involved parties, especially before an outside nation attempts to use the crisis to its own benefit. Iran is the first nation that comes to mind. However, Turkey is another nation that has made alarming moves, especially its very vocal support of Qatar. If the second Kuwaiti mediation falls apart, do not be surprised if Turkish support becomes more substantial in the coming days.