Middle East Ticker

Qatar Cut Off by Diplomatic Rift, Syrian Forces Begin Attack on Raqqa, Germany Withdraws Troops from Turkish Airbase

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, June 6, 2017, 10:20 AM

Saudi Arabia and Others Sever Diplomatic Ties with Qatar

The renewed spat between Saudi Arabia and Qatar escalated significantly on Monday when Saudi Arabia moved to break off diplomatic relations with Qatar. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and the Maldives followed Riyadh’s lead, as did Yemen’s internationally-recognized government and Libya’s House of Representatives government. Saudi Arabia has also closed off its airspace and land border with the country, prompting concerns about shortages of food imports. Residents of Doha were reportedly clearing the shelves of supermarkets on Monday to stock up on supplies.

The disagreement between Doha and Riyadh isn’t new and has at its root Qatar’s foreign policy, which includes supporting political Islamist groups and promoting more combative, independent media, embodied by Al-Jazeera. Saudi Arabia and many of its close allies consider political Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to be a threat; their existence presents a political alternative to the authoritarian regimes that dominate the region, and most of the governments have banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. The last time the Saudi-Qatar feud got this bad was in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when Qatar was supporting Islamists across the region to try to win influence in countries like Libya, Egypt, and Syria, while Saudi Arabia was backing different powerbrokers. This particularly came to a head in Egypt, where Qatar backed Mohamed Morsi’s short-lived administration and Saudi Arabia supported his overthrow in a coup in July 2013. After the Morsi government’s collapse, with the Brotherhood on its heels, Saudi Arabia patched things up with Doha and pivoted to focus on its other regional concern, Iran—but that detente appears to be over now.

The feuding has escalated over the past week despite Qatari efforts to appease Riyadh. First, Doha deported a Saudi human rights activist back to the kingdom as he tried to transit Qatar to seek asylum in Norway. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani then traveled to Kuwait in an effort to resolve the tensions. Over the weekend, Lebanese media reported that Qatari authorities had notified senior Hamas officials that they would have to leave the country due to “external pressures.” These incremental measures appear to have been insufficient for Riyadh, which severed ties on Monday, less than two weeks after it was precipitated by a bizarre hacking scandal in which comments critical of the Gulf states’ foreign policy were attributed to Thani.

While the disagreements between Riyadh and Doha were never entirely resolved, the new sparring seems to have come out of the blue. The Financial Times reported Monday that one contributing factor was Qatar’s ransom payment to an Iranian-backed Shia militia in Iraq to secure the release of a group of Qatari falconers, including members of the royal family, who were abducted while hunting in December 2015. The Times reports that the ransom may have been as much as $1 billion to Iran’s proxies, rankling Riyadh and Abu Dhabi—but it was intercepted by Iraqi authorities and never reached its intended recipients. Emirati political analyst Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi suggests that the Gulf states have tired of Qatar’s interference in other countries, particularly through the influential media organizations based in Doha, which they see as a betrayal of its pledge to not try to affect other countries’ domestic affairs. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates may insist that Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera entirely before this latest round of feuding ends, Qassemi writes. Others have noted that the Saudis and Emiratis may be acting now because they feel empowered after U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit; with Washington looking to shore up ties with the kingdom, the Saudis will have carte blanche to settle accounts in the region without pressure from the Trump administration. H.A. Hellyer, writing for the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog, notes that Qatar is in a weak position and particularly vulnerable to Saudi pressure. “[T]he question of whether or not Doha will acquiesce is probably moot,” he argues, “it is more likely about how and how quickly.”

[W]ith Washington looking to shore up ties with the kingdom, the Saudis will have carte blanche to settle accounts in the region without pressure from the Trump administration.

Trump may have inadvertently set the stage for this new sparring, and his administration is now responding in typically disjointed fashion. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered on Monday to mediate between the two sides and downplayed the effect it would have on counterterrorism cooperation, but on Tuesday, Trump sent a series of tweets suggesting the rift was a positive development in addressing the financing of terrorist groups. “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!” he tweeted. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding......extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” Chatham House’s Peter Salisbury argues that the escalating fight “presents the Trump administration with its biggest foreign policy crisis to date,” but it’s unclear officials in White House realize the magnitude of the issue yet.

 

U.S.-backed Syrian Forces Begin Raqqa Offensive

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces coalition announced today that it has begun pushing into Raqqa after months of planning and operations that have encircled the city’s west, north, and east. After wrapping up shaping operations and seizing some last villages west of the city on Monday, SDF troops and U.S. warplanes bombarded the city last night and this morning began advancing into the outskirts. Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said he anticipates that the battle to retake the city will be “long and difficult,” but that it will undermine the Islamic State’s perceived strength and ability to recruit new fighters.

Assad regime forces are also bearing down on Islamic State territory, pushing east from Aleppo. On Sunday, they captured the town of Maskanah, the last large populated area held by the Islamic State in Aleppo province. Russian warplanes and cruise missiles are also striking Islamic State forces as they try to leave Raqqa and move toward Palmyra, which is currently held by the regime but has been the site of back-and-forth fighting.

Aid organizations have had difficulty accommodating the influx of fleeing civilians in Mosul, where they have greater freedom to operate; Raqqa could be significantly more difficult.

Thousands of people are fleeing as forces close in on the city. An estimated 100,000 have left in the past two months, according to the United Nations. Doctors Without Borders reports that approximately 10,000 have reached the Ain Issa refugee camp north of the city, with about 800 more arriving each day after escaping at night. Nearly 200,000 people are still believed to be trapped in the city. The upcoming offensive will present severe humanitarian challenges. Aid organizations have had difficulty accommodating the influx of fleeing civilians in Mosul, where they have greater freedom to operate; Raqqa could be significantly more difficult.

 

Germany Withdraws Troops from Turkish Airbase Amid Ongoing Feud

Despite a visit from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to Turkey to resolve ongoing tensions between the two countries, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday that it will not continue to base German troops at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. The troops will be relocated to Jordan's Azraq airbase, and though the transfer will probably not cause much disruption to Germany’s participation in counterterrorism operations, the incident is indicative of a problematic rift within NATO and the counter-Islamic State coalition.

The current feud between Germany and Turkey has deep roots, but this particular iteration began during the campaign leading up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, which passed in April. In March, German officials blocked Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from speaking at a pro-referendum rally in Germany, where supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were trying to drum up votes for the referendum among Turkish expats. The incident escalated when Turkey arrested a German-Turkish journalist, and then became a campaign issue, with Erdogan incorporating criticisms comparing contemporary Germany to the Nazis into his stump speeches.

[T]he transfer will probably not cause much disruption to Germany’s participation in counterterrorism operations, [but] the incident is indicative of a problematic rift within NATO and the counter-Islamic State coalition.

The feud has continued since Erdogan’s referendum passed in April. The Incirlik basing issue emerged last month when a delegation of German parliamentarians were not allowed to visit German troops stationed at Incirlik. German officials protested, but Cavusoglu responded in a press conference that it was a political decision. “We see that Germany supports everything that is against Turkey," he said on May 30. "Under these circumstances it is not possible for us to open Incirlik to German lawmakers right now. If they take positive steps in the future we can reconsider.” Gabriel met with Cavusoglu over the weekend, but talks between the two sides quickly broke down, prompting the announced move to Jordan. Gabriel said today that Germany will try to minimize tensions while the withdrawal is occurring. "Above all we should organize the withdrawal so that there is no megaphone diplomacy where we trade insults,” he said. “This is no small thing but it is about more than Incirlik, it's about our relationship with Turkey.”