Middle East Ticker

U.S. and Iran Compete in Eastern Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia Renew Old Feud, and More Fighting in Libya after Attacks in Manchester and Minya

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, May 30, 2017, 12:16 PM

Is the United States Trying to Hold a Sliver of Syria?

The battlelines for divvying influence in post-Islamic State eastern Syria are becoming clearer by the day now. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are bearing down on Raqqa from the north and U.S.-backed Sunni Arab rebels are holding territory along the Jordan-Syria border and trying to press toward Deir Ezzour; they’re competing with Iranian-backed pro-regime forces that are pushing east. They came in conflict earlier this month when U.S. forces targeted pro-regime troops bearing down on the al-Tanf border crossing. The U.S. airstrikes were the surest indication to date that the United States intends to prevent the Assad regime from reasserting control over portions of eastern Syria.

The strategic implication is that the United States will try to block Iran’s proxies in Syria from linking up with it’s proxies in Iraq, which would allow Iran to reestablish a land route to Lebanon and regime-held Syria. A U.S. military source told Al-Jazeera that this is a U.S. objective; it’s also something Israeli officials have been encouraging for months, including on Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz visit to Washington in mid-May. Iran, for its part, considers the war in Syria an existential struggle; its forces in Syria are pressing deeper into Islamic State- and rebel-held territory south of Deir Ezzour, while Shia militias in Iraq consolidate their control of towns near the Iraq-Syria border. The war has become “a broader regional contest” playing out in eastern Syria, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Fabrice Balanche writes, “with the regime and its allies racing to establish an east-west ‘Shiite axis’ from Iran to Lebanon and the United States seemingly looking to cement a north-south ‘Sunni axis’ from the Gulf states and Jordan to Turkey.”

Carving out a U.S.-backed buffer in eastern Syria is less an endgame, and more a prelude to a new phase of the conflict...

Even if the United States and its partners can secure a buffer in eastern Syria, it will be a tenuous position. For this to work, the United States will have to maintain control of a narrow sliver of land set between two Iranian proxy forces, while relying on an odd-bedfellows collection of partner forces. In Syria, the United States will need to work closely with Turkey and Kurdish militias in the north, each of which is ready to tear the other apart; they also both have considerable ties to the regime that could complicate U.S. efforts. In the south, the United States will be working closely with Sunni Arab rebels that have relied on large amounts of support from U.S. and Jordanian forces to bolster their power. And the eastern flank will rely on the continued support of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government in Baghdad, which is caught between U.S. and Iranian influence; Iran-backed militias are already bracing for conflict and warning that they will target U.S. troops in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State. Carving out a U.S.-backed buffer in eastern Syria is less an endgame, and more a prelude to a new phase of the conflict that could see the United States and its partners fighting Iranian proxies on two fronts.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia Are Back to Fighting with Each Other

For years, Qatar has cut a different path from many of its Gulf neighbors. It has chafed at Saudi Arabia’s political influence in the peninsula and has frequently been at odds with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council: It pushed the envelope of acceptable media with Al-Jazeera and has cultivated ties with the political Islamists the Saudis have tried to put down across the region. This has played out in political machinations in Egypt and support for rival proxies in hot battlefields like Libya and Syria, but the worst tensions appeared to subside at the end of 2014, when the two sides seemed to reconcile over the course of a series of meetings culminating in a state visit for a GCC summit by then-Crown Prince Salman, who has since assumed the throne. The effects of the rivalry have continued to play out in other countries—for example, Egypt’s crusade against Al-Jazeera journalists—but the diplomatic rift seemed bridged.

So the scandal that erupted abruptly last week comes as a bit of a surprise. It started when the state-run Qatar News Agency published an article reporting provocative comments attributed to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. In a speech at a military graduation ceremony, Thani was reported to have denounced U.S. foreign policy, questioned the Gulf’s hostility toward Iran, and suggested that the only thing that had protected Qatar from an attack from other Gulf states was the positioning of U.S. troops at Al-Udeid Air Base. Qatari authorities later removed the article and claimed QNA’s site had been hacked. But the story was out: Other Gulf media picked up the story and continued to report the comments even after the posts were deleted, and continued to propagate the story even after Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini authorities blocked access to Qatari news sites. Saudi-based Al-Arabiyya even published an article claiming that QNA had fabricated the hacking story.

There doesn’t seem to be any urgent reason for either side to pick this fight now, but escalating Qatari-Saudi tension appears to be a renewed dynamic that will play out in the coming weeks.

It is unclear whether or not QNA was hacked—no group has claimed credit for it—but the Saudis could have accepted the explanation if they were looking to avoid a fight. Instead, tensions have flared again between the GCC’s core and Qatar. “The Gulf Cooperation Council countries are passing through a new sharp crisis that carries within it a great danger...Fending off sedition lies in changing behavior, building trust and regaining credibility,” Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, commented on Twitter. Leaders in Doha are trying to patch things up quickly. On Monday, Qatari authorities deported a Saudi human rights advocate back to Riyadh as he tried to make his way to Norway to seek political asylum; Emirati analyst Sultan al-Qassemi said on Twitter that the move was a “gesture of goodwill towards Saudi.” Thani will also travel to Kuwait soon in the hopes of brokering a resolution. It all seems like strange timing: There doesn’t seem to be any urgent reason for either side to pick this fight now, but escalating Qatari-Saudi tension appears to be a renewed dynamic that will play out in the coming weeks.

Libya in Crosshairs after Attacks in England and Egypt

Libya is under renewed counterterrorism scrutiny this week, even as the capital lapses into political infighting again. Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, had documented ties to extremist groups in Libya and the FBI warned British authorities earlier this year that he was planning an attack. The FBI’s intelligence came from intercepted communications in Libya, where Ramadan Abedi, Salman’s father, has been living as a member of an al-Qaeda-affiliated militia, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Shortly after the bombing in Manchester, the Special Deterrence Forces, a militia allied to the U.N.-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), announced it has arrested Ramadan Abedi and Salman’s brother, Hashem, who was reportedly planning an attack in Tripoli. It is unclear whether his father was involved in the Manchester attack, though, which has been claimed by the Islamic State, not al-Qaeda. British authorities have arrested Abedi’s suspected associates in Manchester, but a policy response is still forthcoming.

Egyptian authorities have ramped up an air campaign targeting militant training camps in eastern Libya.

Egypt has been more forceful in its response to a bombing targeting Christian pilgrims in Minya last week that left 29 people dead. In response to the attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State, Egyptian authorities have ramped up an air campaign targeting militant training camps in eastern Libya. “The tragic work in Minya is evidence of the extent to which these groups, which are determined to commit these horrific crimes, can target the innocent in order to destabilize Egypt...(Egypt) targeted the bases of these organizations in order to get rid of them and to limit their ability to threaten Egypt's national security,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Monday, noting that his government had coordinated the strikes with the Libyan National Army, a powerful faction under the leadership of Gen. Khalifa Haftar that has tried to purge Islamist groups from eastern Libya. The strikes began on Friday, shortly after the terrorist attack, and have primarily targeted areas around Derna and Jafra.

Violence is escalating in Tripoli, as well. After a period of relative calm and discussions of a possible political reconciliation agreement, the capital was seized by another paroxysm of street battles on Friday. GNA officials blamed the fighting on militias loyal to Khalifa Ghwell’s National Salvation Government. At least 52 GNA troops were killed in clashes last week.