The New York Post
June 6, 2017
Escalating hostility among Gulf countries can be an opportunity for America — or spell doom for President Trump’s attempt to organize an anti-extremist coalition to pacify the Middle East and check Iran’s malign influence.
A rift between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and their allies on one side, and Qatar on the other, has become a full-blown crisis. The Trump administration is offering to mediate. If successful, it’ll show US leadership is still alive and well — and irreplaceable.
It won’t be easy. Arabs have never been good at unity. For decades, enmities between the region’s potentates and strongmen were hidden behind a veneer of “unity” over opposition to Israel. A side effect of President Barack Obama’s tilt toward Iran, however, was that powerful Arab leaders realized they had bigger problems than the Jewish state.
In a break from his predecessor, Trump saw an opportunity to strengthen the region’s anti-Iran forces.
It was a sound idea: A unified Sunni Arab front would slow Iranian expansion, stem the cash flow to jihadists and possibly even lead to public Arab-Israeli ties. But now that’s on hold.
Saudi kings and Qatari emirs have long competed for Gulf primacy, which leads Qatar to support anti-Western forces as part of the emir’s attempt to chart an independent path.
But the current crisis is more serious than similar past rifts.
On Monday, six countries led by Saudi Arabia severed ties with Qatar. Worse, they closed airspace and borders, threatening Qatar’s imported food supplies.
It isn’t immediately clear what made this simmering pot finally boil over.
Has the location of Trump’s May 21 Riyadh speech, not to mention a $110 billion arms deal, led the Saudis to conclude they’re now kings of all Arabs? If so, why not settle an old score against a hated rival? (Even though Trump’s speech praised Qatar as well.)
Qatar has long been a thorn in the side of the Saudis and other Arabs. It backs the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s main opposition. It hosts Hamas leaders and supports Yemen’s Houthis, which fight opposite Saudi-backed forces in Yemen’s civil war. It finances operations of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and Bahrain’s (Tehran-backed) opposition.
Then there’s Al Jazeera, the Qatari-financed Arabic-language media outlet that endlessly criticizes Arab leaders (except, of course, for the emir in Doha).
And then there’s Iran.
According to accounts in various Arab press outlets, Qatar secretly funds Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Qatar’s foreign minister has reportedly been seen meeting with Gen. Qassem Sulemani, Tehran’s point man on exporting the Islamic revolution to Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza.
According to the Financial Times, the last straw for the Gulf states might have been when Qatar recently paid Iran and an al Qaeda Syrian offshoot $1 billion ransom to release 21 members of the Qatari royal family captured in Iraq while on a falconry trip, as well as members of a Qatari-affiliated militia captured in Syria.
So that’s how we got in the mess. How do we get out?
“We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday in Australia. “If there’s any role” the United States can play in mediating the crisis, he added, it’s certainly interested in doing so.
There isn’t much time to figure it out, says David Weinberg, a Gulf scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Qatar could soon run low on food imports — and then perhaps turn to Iran, which has already offered assistance.
With some “deft statecraft,” however, America can help. But “simply resolving this dispute for its own sake won’t be helpful, and in fact could make things worse,” Weinberg says.
If the dispute is “resolved” by allowing Qatar to continue winking and nodding at terror-financiers, or by turning a blind eye to its ties to Iran, then Trump’s anti-Iran coalition may remain intact, but at the risk of forfeiting parts of its own mission.
The Qataris, it turns out, are amenable to pressure. In an apparent response to US pleas, Doha last week expelled some Hamas leaders (though not all).
That, of course, isn’t enough. And pressure must be applied with care: Too much of it could leave Qatar no choice but to leave the US alliance altogether, and defect to the Iran-Syria-Russia axis.
A helping hand, conversely, can help return a wayward sheep to the flock — and make American Mideast diplomacy great again.
Article Link To The New York Post: