Middle East Ticker

Gulf States Limit Diplomatic Fallout, Jihadists Gain More Control in Idlib, and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Diplomacy

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, August 15, 2017, 9:30 AM

Gulf States Look to Limit Diplomatic Fallout from Feud with Qatar

While the diplomatic fight between the Gulf states and Qatar continues, at least one element of the Saudi- and Emirati-led campaign to isolate Doha is softening. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced last week that they would reopen their airspace to Qatar Airways jets as part of an arrangement negotiated by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The deal will provide a boost to the airline, which appeared poised to suffer from the isolation policy. Qatar is looking to drive more customers to the airline and more tourists to Doha with a new rule that would allow citizens of 80 countries to travel to the country without obtaining a visa. It is still unclear when the policy, announced last Wednesday, would go into effect and which countries would be included.

U.S. and European business interests will also be protected from the effects of the ongoing feud. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain have informed the State Department that U.S. companies will be exempted from sanctions they are imposing on businesses working with Doha, and Reuters reports that EU officials have received similar assurances.

[T]he decisions signal that the Gulf states want to keep their feud in the family and not let it affect relationships with their partners in the West.

At a minimum, the decisions signal that the Gulf states want to keep their feud in the family and not let it affect relationships with their partners in the West. If the Gulf states are willing to undermine the effectiveness of their coercive policies by reopening airways and not targeting big-fish businesses working with Doha, it may also mean that they are looking to settle into some sort of detente without resolving the crisis completely. The spat has stung both sides: It has weakened Qatar economically and diplomatically, driving it closer to unreliable allies Turkey and Iran; become a point of tension between the Gulf states and U.S. State Department; and led to embarrassing disclosures. Recently, the pro-Qatar hacking organization GlobalLeaks (which is unaffiliated with the open-source whistleblowing initiative that shares the name) shared emails from 2011 and 2012 with the New York Times in which Emirati officials express their surprise and disappointment that the Taliban would be opening an embassy in Doha and not Abu Dhabi; Emirati Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba has since written in the New York Times that the Emirati offer to allow a Taliban embassy was predicated on the Taliban renouncing al-Qaeda and terrorist tactics and was rescinded when the Taliban refused, a claim not in evidence in the leaked emails. Still, the emails make the Gulf states’ complaints that Qatar is hosting terrorist groups such as the Taliban just a bit harder to swallow.

 

As Extremists Gain Control in Idlib, Turkey and Iran Consider Response

As Syrian rebel groups are pushed farther from urban centers and more moderate groups accept localized cease-fire agreements, extremist groups are gaining more influence in Idlib province, one of the remaining rebel strongholds. When the Lebanese Armed Forces negotiated a cease-fire with al-Qaeda-linked militants in Arsal, Idlib was made a dumping ground for more extremists, and U.S. officials have expressed concern about the unfettered movement of terrorist groups in the area. U.S. envoy Brett McGurk recently called the province “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” Writing for Foreign Affairs, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi says the balance of power in the area has tipped decisively in favor of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

The rising influence of extremist groups—and the various militaries targeting them—is making local civilians concerned, the New York Times reports. “We, the civilians, are stuck between an organization with an extreme ideology and an international community willing to fight it at all costs,” one resident said. Some are  worried that extremists will upend the delicate status quo that allows aid deliveries and turn on NGOs, moderates and one another. That may be happening already: On Saturday, men armed with silenced weapons assassinated seven members of the Syrian Civil Defence, the rescue worker organization also known as the White Helmets. The identities and affiliations of the attackers is unknown, but the Associated Press reports that feuding jihadist factions and Islamic State sleeper cells are suspected.

What comes next for Idlib is likely to be decided between Turkey and Iran...

“At this stage, the only viable option for reversing this victory would be a direct Turkish military intervention in favor of Ahrar and other rebel factions in Idlib, although there is little incentive for Turkey—which does not see HTS as a direct threat to its territory—to do so,” Tamimi writes. “Absent that intervention, the most likely alternative is an ugly regime-backed offensive to retake Idlib, prompting greater refugee flows into Turkey.” Tamimi doesn’t see Turkey stepping in anytime soon, but Turkish officials said this week that they’re stepping up measures along the Turkey-Syria border, allowing aid into the country but halting the flow of weapons. What comes next for Idlib is likely to be decided between Turkey and Iran, the Assad-regime patron that would need to provide support to any regime offensive in the area. Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hossein Bagheri, the chief of staff of the Iranian military, travels to Turkey this week for three days of meetings.

 

Saudi Arabia Cracks Down on Shiites at Home, Reaches out to Iraq

Saudi Arabia announced last week that it is in complete control of Awamiya, a Shiite town in Qatif province that has been the site of months of clashes. The Saudi government has a complicated relationship with its Shiite minority; Saudi Shiites say they are persecuted for their beliefs and some Shiites have targeted security forces with attacks in recent years. Saudi Arabia has cracked down on prominent Shiite figures and created a diplomatic crisis when it executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In recent months, clashes between Saudi authorities and Shiite communities have centered on Awamiya, where the Saudi government has tried to push through plans to redevelop the town center despite resistance from residents. Satellite images published by Human Rights Watch show severe damage to buildings, and journalists allowed into the town on a Saudi-government-organized trip described a “war zone.” “Rusted-out cars lay half-flattened next to wrecked homes pocked with hundreds of bullet holes,” Reuters reported.

Saudi forces are clearing the area with bulldozers in preparation for redevelopment projects. “Of course, we didn't get approval from everyone, but most Qatif and Awamiya residents wanted to see their neighborhoods developed,” the regional mayor told Reuters. While security forces may be tightening their hold on the area, that might not end the strife. Tens of thousands of locals have been forcibly displaced by the fighting; those who didn’t, or couldn’t, flee were caught in a siege while troops closed down medical facilities and clashes disrupted access to electricity (and, as a result, air-conditioning) while temperatures climbed to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. That will further fuel Shiite grievances in Qatif. But for now, Saudi officials are billing the operation as a triumph. Security forces have "eliminated terrorism and brought peace and security,” Saudi Arabia's Information and Culture Minister Awwad al-Awwad tweeted.

While Saudi Arabia struggles with its own Shiite minority, it is strengthening ties with the Iraqi government and exerting influence through one of the country’s most notorious Shiite clerics. In addition to the thawing relationship between the governments in Riyadh and Baghdad, Saudi Arabia hosted Muqtada al-Sadr in late July, and he visited the United Arab Emirates over the weekend. Sadr’s career has gone through several phases over the past 15 years: The son of a respected Iraqi nationalist Shiite cleric assassinated by Saddam Hussein, Sadr quickly became a kingmaker influential with Iraqi Shiites after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He promoted insurgency against U.S. troops, but when he came under threat he absconded to Iran to pursue more religious training. More recently, he’s reinvented himself as a government reformer, rallying large crowds to advocate for cooperation among competing power blocs and the passage of anti-corruption legislation. He has also called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, another unusual move for a Shiite authority who once had strong ties to Tehran.

Sadr is a talented political strategist; his career has been marked by opportunism that has allowed him to ride successive waves of popular grievance in Iraqi society.

His latest chapter, working with the Gulf states to check Iran’s influence in Iraq, is his most surprising. Upon returning from Saudi Arabia, Sadr called on the Iraqi government to disband the Hashd al-Shaabi, Iranian-backed popular militias that mobilized to fight Islamic State, and absorb some of the forces into the Iraqi military. In response, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he wouldn’t end the militias. "The Hashd al-Shaabi … is for Iraq and will not be dissolved,” he said on Aug. 6.

Sadr is a talented political strategist; his career has been marked by opportunism that has allowed him to ride successive waves of popular grievance in Iraqi society. As Fanar Haddad writes for Monkey Cage Blog, his latest move positions him as a moderate statesman ahead of elections scheduled for next year and warns Iran “he not only has options, but he can even push back against Iran and has the power to potentially hurt Iranian interests in Iraq.” That presents Riyadh with opportunities of its own.