Middle East Ticker

U.S. Sinks Deeper into Syrian Civil War, Gulf Feud Starting to Shift Qatari Policy, U.S. Resumes Weapons Deliveries to Saudi Arabia

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, June 20, 2017, 4:00 PM

United States Slides Deeper into Syrian Civil War

The escalation between U.S. and Iranian-backed Assad regime forces in southeastern Syria tipped further into direct confrontation this week. After recent skirmishes between U.S. and regime forces near al-Tanf, on the Syria-Jordan border, U.S. troops deployed HIMARS missile trucks last week, but the heavy weapons did not deter further encroachment by regime forces. On Sunday, a U.S. F/A-18 intercepted and shot down a Syrian Su-22 bomber after it carried out an attack near U.S.-backed forces near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. It is at least the third incident in which the United States has targeted Assad regime forces this month.

The United States appears to be sinking deeper into the quagmire of Syria’s civil war without a strategy or clear objectives. That’s a terrifying prospect only made worse by a report from Foreign Policy that the strategy-deficient drift into war is being pushed by two Trump administration NSC staffers despite the objections of defense planners. The United States also has no legal framework for sustained combat against the Assad regime except in cases of self-defense—unless you accept Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s strained explanation that the Sunday incident was covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. On Lawfare this morning, Robert Chesney argues that just doesn’t work: “But even if we accept that this indirect belligerency really should count for purposes of the statutory analysis, the important consideration here is that the Syrian government could not plausibly be depicted as ‘associated’ with al Qaeda. The associated forces option has no application here.”

The Assad regime’s chief patrons, Iran and Russia, are stepping up efforts to project force in eastern Syria. Also on Sunday, Iran launched a barrage of surface-to-surface missiles at Islamic State targets in Deir Ezzour; the strikes were nominally a retaliation for the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Tehran, but were also a clear demonstration of its missiles’ reach into contested areas. And on Monday, Russia leapt to the Assad regime’s defense and warned that it will target any U.S. or coalition warplane that crosses west of the Euphrates River.

The Assad regime’s chief patrons, Iran and Russia, are stepping up efforts to project force in eastern Syria.

The potential for conflict is not limited to concerns about Iran and the Assad regime’s role in eastern Syria. As BuzzFeed reported this past week, Turkey is also watching developments around Raqqa warily and considering intervening to address what it sees as undue Kurdish influence. “I can say that Turkey has its military operation options on table,” one Turkish policy expert told BuzzFeed. Ankara wants to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdish state, but its chance to act may have already closed. The largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are pushing into Raqqa and face few threats in northeastern Syria; across the border in Iraq, Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani is moving ahead with plans for a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq to be held on September 25. “[F]or a long time I have held the belief that Baghdad is not accepting real, meaningful partnership with us,” Barzani told Foreign Policy. “I want to die in the shadow of the that flag of an independent Kurdistan.”

Qatar Feud Continues in Wall Street Journal Editorial Pages

The Saudi-backed isolation policy targeting Qatar entered full effect over the weekend, marking the latest escalation in the ongoing Gulf feud. While Saudi Arabia and several of its partners have established an embargo of the country, the policy now also requires citizens of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to return to their countries, even in instances in which they are married to Qatari citizens. Despite Qatar’s best efforts to build up its resilience to the Gulf’s policy, the isolation is beginning to bend Qatar’s independent foreign policy toward the Gulf mainstream: The Los Angeles Times reports that “Qatari support [for Hamas] has wavered as the tiny Persian Gulf emirate came under political and economic pressure from Arab neighbors” and Hamas officials are looking for refuge elsewhere. Syrian rebel groups are also concerned that the feud could exacerbate divisions within the already fractious rebel community.

There’s still no sign of a swift resolution to the crisis, but there’s also no indication of tensions boiling over into overt conflict. Emirati Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash said this past week that the isolation policy could remain in place for “years,” and Qatari officials say they won’t negotiate until the policy is eased. “Hopefully, this dispute will soon prove to have been little more than a tempest in a teapot,” International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann wrote for the New York Times, while warning that “the teapot happens to be the Gulf...where one false move, one miscommunication, one misread signal could set in motion unstoppable forces.”

The latest and most improbable theater in which the Gulf feud is being fought is the Wall Street Journal opinion page. On June 13, Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba published an editorial condemning Qatar and laying out the Gulf’s argument—or at least the version of it tailored to a Washington audience. Qatar is playing a double game, Otaiba argues, drawing money from investments in the United States and funneling a portion of that to extremists, including those linked to al-Qaeda. The editorial also takes aim at Al Jazeera, which Otaiba accuses of providing a platform to and colluding with terrorist organizations. And he was able to selectively draw from the Trump administration’s mixed messages for support for the Gulf’s policies. “President Trump said it well on Friday: ‘the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding [of extremism]. . . . For Qatar, we want you back among the unity of responsible nations,’” he wrote in the Journal.

The Qatari ambassador responded on June 18, writing that Qatar is “‘all in’ in the fight against terrorism” and pointing to the number of terrorists that have sprung from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. He went further, noting that, despite the Gulf’s concerns about foreign meddling, it was the Emirates and Saudi Arabia that supported the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, and even accused them of supporting last July’s coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (It’s the first I’ve heard of the accusation, and Turkey has placed the blame squarely on the supporters of Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s one-time Islamist partner who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.) “It has become clear that the current campaign against Qatar is not about terrorism, Al Jazeera or any of the other issues highlighted by the boycotting nations,” Ambassador Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad al-Thani wrote. “It is about Qatar’s independence, which some apparently view as a threat.”

The Trump administration is still grappling with its schizophrenic response to the Gulf crisis; while Trump has openly supported the Saudis’ hard line, the administration agreed last week to sell Qatar as many as 36 F-15 jets. Brookings’ Daniel Byman and Will McCants wrote for The Atlantic last week on the hazards of the United States weighing in forcefully on one side or the other. They argue that “picking sides in a dispute like this one risks jeopardizing cooperation with some states by condoning the nefarious activities of others—all for little gain.” Qatar does not have perfect track records on extremism but neither do the Gulf states that are campaigning against it, and all are playing important roles in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. “As long as the United States wants to provide security for the Arab Gulf nations and fight terrorism, it cannot afford to pick sides in a destabilizing fraternal squabble,” they wrote. “That would undermine the very purpose of U.S. involvement in the first place, and risk incurring disaster.”

By U.S. standards, Saudi Arabia conflates terrorism with free political expression while still providing a platform for clerics advocating violence and intolerance.

Byman and McCants make a good point. Another, less discussed reason the United States should be wary of intervening in the feud on Saudi Arabia’s behalf is that the crisis makes plain the differences between the U.S. and Saudi definitions of terrorism. Saudi Arabia is targeting Qatar largely for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamist groups that the Arab monarchies and autocracies perceive as a threat to their authority. The United States has designated some Brotherhood groups as terrorists, like Hamas (a point Otaiba is eager to make in his editorial), but not others, like the Brotherhood’s affiliates in Egypt, Yemen, or Tunisia. In fact, the United States has repeatedly considered and declined to designate the Brotherhood writ large as a terrorist group (Lawfare published several articles on the subject just a few months back); many of the affiliates do not fit the U.S. definition of terrorism and even include politicians that the United States has worked with in some contexts. By U.S. standards, Saudi Arabia conflates terrorism with free political expression while still providing a platform for clerics advocating violence and intolerance. This is all the more insidious in the context of the Gulf’s targeting of Qatari media like Al Jazeera. Several Al Jazeera bureaus in the Middle East have been forced to close since the start of the crisis; the result is an unmistakable chilling of what little free media exists in the region. If the United States took the Saudi line against Qatar, it would further close the already narrowing window for peaceful political expression in the Middle East. That’s a path that could easily lead to more terrorism, not less.

U.S. to Resume Weapons Deliveries to Saudi Arabia as Yemen Collapses Further

The United States will resume the delivery of precision-guided weapons sold to Saudi Arabia in a 2015 weapons deal. The Trump administration notified Congress that it would lift a halt the Obama administration placed on fulfilling the agreement last year in response to concerns about high numbers of civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen. More weapons are also on the way: Last week, the U.S. Senate narrowly approved the sale of $510 million in new weapons systems, part of the package of arms sales signed during President Trump’s recent visit to the Riyadh. Though new arms sales are going through and the United States is providing bombs to Saudi Arabia again, the civilian casualties that prompted the freeze continue. On Sunday, Houthi officials said that 25 people were killed when Saudi warplanes bombed a marketplace in Yemen’s Saada province.

"There is food insecurity throughout the country. There are pockets of famine. Now cholera.”

The conflict in Yemen has killed more than 10,000 people, and the situation is only growing worse with a rapidly growing cholera outbreak. There have been more than 124,000 reported cases in just the past month and a half, and more than 900 deaths. The proliferation of the disease has been abetted by poor sanitary conditions and the collapse of the country’s medical system. Doctors have gone unpaid for months and cannot provide treatment; in recent weeks, UNICEF has stepped in to try to provide some funding as a stopgap. "Yemen has been facing war for the past two years. There is food insecurity throughout the country. There are pockets of famine. Now cholera,” Mohamed El Montassir Hussein, Yemen director for the International Rescue Committee, told NPR. “It's three crises in the same time happening in Yemen."