Middle East Ticker

Qatar Braces for a Long Fight, Islamic State Loses Ground in Raqqa, and Terrorists Attack on Iranian Soil

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, June 13, 2017, 11:06 AM

Qatar Prepares to Draw out Feud with Saudi Arabia

Qatar is working through intermediaries in Kuwait to try to resolve the current diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, in which Saudi Arabia the United Arab Emirates, and their allies have moved aggressively to isolate Doha to compel it to shift its foreign policy. But even as Qatari officials try to find a diplomatic resolution, the emirate is also bracing for a protracted isolation. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said on Monday that he is continuing discussions with Kuwaiti diplomats, but claimed that Saudi Arabia has so far not presented Qatar with what it would like to see changed. Instead, Thani said conversations have focused on measures to ease the isolation of the country.*

Saudi Arabia and its partners turned up the heat last week, issuing a joint list of 59 individuals and 12 organizations linked to Qatar that they were designating as terrorists, including the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. “There is no trust,” the Emirati ambassador to Russia, Omar Saif Ghobas, told The Guardian. “So when the Qatari foreign minister says ‘listen, we need to engage in dialogue’, we have done that for many years—that’s just a statement for Western consumption.” Ghobas suggested that the crisis could perhaps be resolved by a coup. “I have heard rumors and a couple of articles suggesting military invasion, but Qatar has a fine history of regime change on its own. It is up to the Qatari people and the royal family to decide if that is the right approach or not,” he said.

Qatari leaders recognize that the crisis may not end quickly, and are looking for ways to circumvent the embargo Saudi Arabia and its partners have imposed on the country. This has involved deepening ties even further with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief regional rival, Turkey, which shares Qatar’s policy of supporting political Islamist groups around the Middle East, and Oman, which has positioned itself as a relatively neutral arbiter in the region. Qatar has begun shipping cargo through Oman’s Sohar port to bypass the closed Saudi border, and Iran has delivered several planeloads of fruits and vegetables to avoid shortages and promised to continue resupplying Qatar as necessary. Turkey and Morocco have also announced they will export food to the country, and one Qatari businessman is importing 4,000 cows to produce fresh milk domestically. Turkey has gone further in its commitment: Last week, the Turkish parliament fast-tracked legislation to increase deployments of Turkish troops to military facilities in Qatar, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of the country.

Qatari leaders recognize that the crisis may not end quickly, and are looking for ways to circumvent the embargo Saudi Arabia and its partners have imposed on the country.

Qatar is also investing in trying to improve its ties to Washington, signing a $2.5 million contract with The Ashcroft Law Firm that includes personal support from former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. The deal will reportedly include Ashcroft’s company evaluating and advising Qatar on efforts to counter terrorist financing and lobbying U.S. policymakers on the emirate’s behalf. Now three weeks into the crisis, the Trump administration still has not managed to present a coherent U.S. position. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Saudi officials last week to ease Qatar's isolation and is coordinating with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. But President Donald Trump has continued to praise Saudi Arabia’s efforts against Qatar; some White House staffers have tried to downplay the remarks, saying last week that Trump may not have known U.S. troops are stationed in the country, but he has now made repeated comments on Twitter and further remarks at a cabinet meeting on Monday. “One of the big things we did—and you’re seeing it now with Qatar and all of the things that are actually going on in a very positive fashion—we are stopping the funding of terrorism,” he said Monday. “You have to starve the beast, and we’re going to starve the beast.”

As experts like H.A. Hellyer and Hussein Ibish have noted, it will be difficult for Qatar to hold out against the pressure exerted by so many of its neighbors indefinitely. There may be room for some sort of compromise agreement in which it agrees to bring its policies more in line with the Gulf’s mainstream, ending its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamist groups and reining in or even shuttering Al-Jazeera and other Qatari-based media outlets. As Elizabeth Dickinson wrote for Politico, “What its [Qatar’s] neighbors want is an end to its one true source of political power: its ability to annoy.” But even if Qatar is forced back into the Gulf fold, the fight will still not be resolved. Qatar will be bound, begrudgingly, to the GCC by geography and threats, not by ideology or political affinity; the next detente will only last until Doha sees a new opportunity, and it may be willing to work more closely with other regional powers like Turkey and Iran next time around after the support they’ve shown in the past three weeks.

Syrian Democratic Forces Advance toward Raqqa’s Old City

The Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed coalition of local troops fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria, have made some early gains in the first week of their offensive to capture Raqqa. Last week, the SDF began pushing into the city on three fronts and now controls neighborhoods on the eastern and western edges of the city. Fighting is expected to intensify as they approach the Old City district. "If they take Al-Senaa [a neighborhood] it will be the most important advance in the battle for Raqqa because it brings them to the center of the city where the most important ISIS positions are," a representative of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Agence France Presse. "When they have captured Al-Senaa, the real battle will begin."

Fighting is expected to intensify as they approach the Old City district.

The Islamic State has been planning its retreat to Deir Ezzor since last year and Russian planes have been bombing convoys fleeing the city in recent weeks. Despite President Donald Trump’s complaints about the U.S.-supported Mosul offensive, the battle so far illustrates why signaling an impending attack—in this case, one that there was really no way to hide—can be beneficial. But that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk, either. The Islamic State has had months to prepare and has likely set traps deeper in the city, as it has in other cities.

While U.S.-backed forces are gaining in Raqqa, they suffered a setback farther south, where U.S. troops are increasingly coming into conflict with Assad regime forces driving toward the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. The U.S. military has defended its position at al-Tanf, along the Syria-Jordan border, but regime forces have bypassed the area to the north and reached the Iraqi border. The advances by the Assad regime could allow it to establish an overland route from Lebanon to Iran, which U.S. and Israeli defense planners have tried to prevent. Their recent successes could draw the United States deeper into conflict with the Assad regime and its backers. As Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras wrote for The Atlantic, “the Trump administration appears to be blindly stumbling into this conflict with no public discussion of the consequences.” Aaron Stein, writing for War on the Rocks, is concerned that tactical decisions around al-Tanf are driving U.S. policy in the absence of a clear strategy.

After Years of Waiting, the Islamic State Attacks Iran

Iran has been remarkably well insulated from jihadi terrorism. Despite terrorist groups targeting Shia populations abroad—like the bombing near Karbala, Iraq, last week that killed at least 31 people—Iran has suffered few casualties. There are credible theories about why al-Qaeda never attacked Iran, but the Islamic State has professed a desire to hit the Islamic Republic for years with no action—until last Wednesday. Four attackers stormed the Iranian parliament building, touching off a hostage crisis that took hours to resolve; two other attackers simultaneously opened fire at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Seventeen people were killed in the attacks.

Iranian authorities have responded swiftly. So far more than 50 suspected militants have been arrested and several others have been killed. According to Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, the alleged mastermind of the attacks is among the dead—though officials did not report the terrorist’s identity or any corroborating information. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps quickly politicized the attack, suggesting that Saudi Arabia was responsible; the Intelligence Ministry did not back up that attribution, instead identifying five attackers as Iranian nationals belonging to the Wahhabi sect who had fought with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Iranian officials have continued to cast aspersions on geopolitical rivals in the days since the attack: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed the United States for establishing the Islamic State in a tweet on Monday, and on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorists acting in Iran’s Baluchistan province. Iran’s leadership has felt the attack deeply. “For Iran’s leadership, the attacks against such conspicuous symbols of the post-revolutionary order will reinforce the perception that the primary purpose of the attacks was not merely to sow insecurity and terrorize civilians, but rather to undermine and even overthrow the regime,” Suzanne Maloney wrote last week.

Iran’s leadership has felt the attack deeply.

There are several reasons for the Islamic State to strike now. As Will McCants noted for Foreign Policy, over the past several years, the Islamic State has had the chance to recruit Iranian Sunnis and train them for an attack that previously was forbidden when the organization was affiliated with al-Qaeda. And now, with the Islamic State losing territory in Iraq and Syria, presents an ideal time to launch an attack for which its al-Qaeda rivals never had the audacity. “A daring attack on Iran’s capital makes al Qaeda look foolish for refusing to carry out a siege of its own,” McCants writes. “The timing of the assault is also significant. To prove that it is still relevant in order to attract new recruits, the Islamic State seeks to inspire or direct global attacks during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Last Ramadan was incredibly bloody, and this Ramadan is on pace to match or surpass it.”

The Islamic State was unusually quick to claim the attack, even broadcasting video taken by gunmen in the parliament building while the attack was still taking place. That suggests an unusually close level of coordination between the attack’s perpetrators and the Islamic State’s media arm. But whether that prefigures additional attacks is hard to say.

Correction: A previous version of this article described Saudi Arabia's isolation policy toward Qatar as a "blockade." As Julian Ku noted on Opinio Juris, the policy does not meet the legal standard of being a blockade. This article has been corrected accordingly.