"During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”-President Trump in a tweetPresident Trump's decision to align behind Saudi Arabia's blockade of Qatar and its diplomatic warfare against the gas rich emirate could help escalate a regional crisis from into a potentially global one. Trump simply doesn't know how to follow Obama's delicate balancing act in using US influence in the Persian Gulf.
Qatar exists at the nexus of two regionwide proxy struggles that Trump could have melded together by indicating he would take the side of the GCC states. Qatar-Turkey has been since 2011 increasingly ranged against Saudi Arabia just as it had been against Iran in the Syrian conflict and for Sunni jihadist forces.
Previously, the Gulf States and Turkey had been aligned against Iran for its backing of Assad but wider developments have driven them apart. In Syria, the Saudis backed Salafi jihadists in the FSA and those aligned with Al Qaeda in order to block the possibility of Assad being overthrown in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The splintering of Sunni forces by the Qatari-Saudi proxy war within a proxy war helped cause the faction to form that broke off and set itself up as Islamic State in 2013-14. The decisive Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 assured Assad would not 'go' as Gaddafi in Libya had and by 2016 they had crushed the rebels.
With the Sunni Arab forces defeated in Syria, Qatar-Turkey have had to realign further towards Iran For Russian supremacy in Syria has thwarted both their plans for gas pipelines through from the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf through towards Syria and then on to the Eastern Mediterranean or via Turkey.
Largely unmentioned as a cause of the Persian Gulf crisis was the Qatari-Iranian decision to jointly develop a new gas field, thus drawing Doha closer to Iran and leading to anger and recrimination that Qatar was a traitor to the GCC that had even conspired with Tehran to funnel arms to the anti-Saudi Houthi forces in the Yemen War.
This realignment has caused paranoia that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are potentially being disempowered by a Qatari-Iranian control not only over the Straits of Hormuz but also the Strait of Bab El Mandeb and thus over oil tanker traffic flows. This would suit a Qatari-Turkish-Iranian alignment in the Middle East.
Turkey in particular became increasingly hostile to General Sisi in Egypt after it overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2013 coup. It was that and the consequent rivalry with the Saudis in Syria over democracy promotion that ensured that Libya has become a proxy battlefield and IS has nestled and spread there.
With the US bombing IS in northern Iraq and Russia having destroyed the Sunni rebels in Syria, the danger would be that Trump and his generals could regard a reassertion of American hegemony to mean knocking Iran out as a regional power factor as many in his administration regard it as the main enemy.
As the US cannot now knock out Assad and the Sunni forces have lost, the US would regard degrading Iran as a factor backing militias and Hizbollah as the one thing it could do to increase its bargaining hand on the grand chessboard that is Syria without running the risk of conflict with Russia, a nuclear armed state.
Trump's administration is being attacked at home for the supposed 'Russian connection' during his election campaign and, so far, his only way of rallying round the Washington elites was when he responded to the alleged Assad gas attack in April to fire missiles at his airbases in order to reposition himself as against Russia.
Given Trump has aligned firmly behind Saudi Arabia and even signalled an 'Arab NATO' would be useful against Iran, a power he accuses of spreading terrorism unlike Saudi Arabia, which claims it wants to deal with jihadists, Riyadh could be trying to ratchet up the crisis to force Trump's hand to come down firmly against Tehran.
The Growing Saudi-Iranian Hostility and Qatar's 'Tilt' to Iran.
A war with Iran has been on the cards since early 2017. As Iranian backed forces have now effectively opened up a land bridge from Iran right though Shia dominated southern and central Iraq into Syria, Trump's older and more paranoid generals could well decide with the President that Iran is a power that needs 'dealing with'.
Saudi Arabia fear a Qatari-Iranian alignment would tilt the balance of power in the Persian Gulf towards its Shia rival and have tried to manipulate Trump into hostility not only against Qatar but Iran. It would suit their agenda for Qatar to get into diplomatic wrangles with Washington so it wouldn't be able to use its air base.
The Al Udeid Air Base is vital for US raids against ISIS in Iraq, so lack of GCC cooperation if US were forced to choose between them and Qatar would affect its efficacy against ISIS. Trump accusing Qatar of funding 'Radical Ideology' came as Iran accused the Saudis of backing ISIS after a terror attack.
US support for the decision in 2015 to wage war against Yemen was less about fear of Iran as the fact the Saudis believed they had legitimate security interests there. Obama needed one way of reassuring a Saudi military power diverted to its south-west that the US would stand by Riyadh in a war and that the 2014 Iran nuclear deal had not altered that.
The reality was that Iran needed to be co-opted to shore up Iraq against the threat of ISIS. But Trump might have concluded in 2017 that this has become less important as his generals have been 'let off the leash' and are rapidly smashing IS with more intense bombardments, even with a 60% increase in civilian casualties resulting.
For the Saudis, as the ISIS Caliphate is destroyed, its concern is the main beneficiary would be Iran, whose power has increased while that of Saudi proxies has diminished on the grand chessboard and while Iran's capacity to covertly fund Shia plots and uprisings in major oil producing regions is feared all the more as it aligns with Iran.
After all, Qatar has a history as a 'loose cannon' in using its gas wealth to foment radical democratic Islam of the sort that is a direct threat to a Saudi autocracy. Qatar's Sheikh Tamim has called Iran an 'Islamic Power' and even termed its relations with Israel 'good', thus upgrading its status as regional mediating power over Riyadh.
This was not only shown after 2011 when Qatar backed Sunni 'moderate' Islamist forces during the 'Arab Spring' but, it is alleged, in supporting democratic protesters in Bahrain where the Saudis had intervened in 2012 to crush a Shia uprising against the Sunni autocracy. According to the Al Watan daily,
“in 2011, Qatar liaised with the now-dissolved Al Wefaq society despite its links with Iran and which was at the time calling for the downfall of the regime. The contacts contributed to the preparations to launch a Qatari initiative that included forming an interim government in Bahrain and calling for withdrawing the Peninsula Shield troops from Manama,”When troops from the GCC were called upon to protect Bahrain under the Peninsula Shield- including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and tacitly supported by the Western Powers, Qatar was attempting to open up a dialogue between the protesters and the government'
It is said Qatar’s ex-prime minister Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani in March 2011 held extensive contacts with Al Wefaq’s secretary general Ali Salman. Al Watan reports that Qatari premier asked Al Wefaq to coordinate with its allied groups to keep the protesters at the GCC Roundabout, the 'epicentre of the protests'.
With Qatar tilting towards Iran, pro-Iranian forces threatening to create a Shia crescent from the Eastern Mediterranean through to the Persian Gulf and Trump siding firmly with the Gulf States, the stand off with Qatar could well be designed to draw him further towards anti-Iranian rhetoric and threats against their enemy over the water.
Trump's forthright defence of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, when he pushed through a $100bn arms deal, and condemned Iran's support for regional terrorism emboldened it to launch its diplomatic war against Qatar once it had the pretext to do so: the joint gas sharing development deal between Qatar and Iran was the trigger.
Turkey Enters the Fray as the Crisis Escalates
With Qatar cut off by land, both Turkey and Iran have offered to step in to keep it supplied. The Turkish Parliament pushed through a bill to allow President Erdogan to deploy Turkish troops to one of Qatar's military bases. That would protect it from any prospect of Saudi military threats as Turkey is a major NATO power.
As a Qatari Al Jazeera report made plain Erdogan's hostility to the Saudi led GCC “Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has criticised the Arab states’ move, saying isolating Qatar and imposing sanctions will not resolve any problems and adding that Ankara will do everything in its power to help end the crisis,”
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has ramped up the rhetoric against the Saudis too claiming "This terrorist action, coming one week after the meeting of the president of the United States with the leader of the one of the region’s reactionary governments [Saudi Arabia] … shows they are involved in this savage action”
Turkey's mobilised to protect Qatar; Qatar has aligned with Iran and the Saudis are ratcheting up hostilities against both Qatar and Iran, having blamed the latter for instigating the entire crisis across the region. The US then blamed the diplomatic war and hacked information about Qatari-Iranian ties on Russian hackers.
The US claim annoyed Russia; while Trump condemned the ISIS attack on Tehran; the US Senate has pushed through fresh sanctions on the IRG which Democrats said could threaten the nuclear deal. Tensions between the US and Iran were developing in Syria as both vied for influence as the IS Caliphate disintegrated further.
Syria: The Deir al-Zour Province as Geopolitical Flashpoint between the US and Iran
As IS forces collapse, US backed forces and Iranian ones are scrambling for control over Deir al-Zour province, a flat desert land in eastern Syria that, if it were taken by Iranian proxies would enable it to control the main land route between Damascus and Baghdad and so create a direct land bridge between Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The US fears that as it would directly connect Tehran with Hizbollah and through Assad's Syria that would connect it to Southern Lebanon. The battle is on at present for control of the Tanf garrison, with US backed forces needing to capture it to divide the two pro-Iranian sides from coming together to form the land route.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has argued "Tanf is very important [to the US] not only for defeating ISIS but making sure that it doesn’t come back afterwards. It’s also key to checking Iranian ambitions” . Should pro-Iranian forces clash with pro-US ones, it could precipitate war.
A former State Department official has claimed "American unwillingness to confront Iran and its proxies in Syria, if obliged by circumstances, is a thing of the past,” And Moscow would now have to anticipate with high likelihood aerial combat with US forces should it elect to provide tactical air support to Iran and its proxies on the ground.”
Russia would have no direct interests to lose in Iran not getting its land bridge as it would have to balance its alignment with Assad's state with the relatively cordial relationship with Israel, one essential to its commercial interests and in preserving its stake in developing Eastern Mediterranean gas field discovered in 2010.
Emile Hokayem comments '.The weakening of ISIS was always going to open a race for territory, dominance and influence. The aggressive tone coming from Washington incentivizes Iran to speed up its operations. The problem is that even what the U.S. sees as limited goals clash with more-ambitious Iranian ones.”
The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Iran are matched by those between the US which has clashed directly with Iranian proxy forces twice in June alone. With a growing diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf, events at a small desert outpost in eastern Syria could end up triggering a major confrontation between the US and Iran.