Old alliances and partnerships in the Middle East are put to the test, while new ones are revealing.
Qatar has just rejected a list of 13 conditions set by Saudi Arabia and its allies, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain for lifting sanctions. The four countries want Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran and close a Turkish military base, setting a deadline on June 23 of 10 days. One of the points says Qatar would have to «align itself with other Arabs and the Gulf, militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as in financial matters».
According to the demands, Qatar’s links with Iran would have to be confined only to trade allowed under the international sanctions regime and approved by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). Qatar shares with Iran a massive offshore natural gas field. Oman has better relations with Iran than all the GCC states, but the Saudi Arabia-led bloc is not demanding the same from Muscat. It makes the condition to reduce the ties with Tehran look like a ruse – «an offer to be refused» – because Doha could not comply even if it wanted to.
According to the demands it has just rejected, Qatar would be required to accept regular external audits. It would also have to agree to be monitored annually for compliance for 10 years. Bowing to the demands would signify an effective end to Qatar’s independence.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as other Arab countries, broke off relations with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting «terrorism» and leaving Doha economically and politically isolated.
Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said on June 23 that Turkey will not close its military base in Qatar. «Re-evaluating the base agreement with Qatar is not on our agenda», he said speaking in an interview with NTV news broadcaster. Qatar also has the option of setting up a similar facility in Turkey. The Turkish parliament has recently approved a motion to deploy troops in Qatar and provide food and water supplies that have been cut off from Qatar by Saudi Arabia.
On June 22, Turkish military sent five armored vehicles and 23 military personnel to Qatar as a sign of support for the Qatari government. The same day, Turkey also sent a first ship loaded with aid for its regional ally. Until that day, it had been delivering aid only by air. Turkey's involvement in the spat marks demonstration of the country's desire to expand Turkey's influence as a powerful player in the region and globally. Ankara’s disputes with many NATO allies, including Germany moving its forces from Incirlik air base, prompt it to seek new partnerships and diversify its alliances to counterbalance the dependence on traditional Western allies.
Now the Saudi-led alliance against Qatar is planning to slap economic sanctions on Turkey. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reportedly insisted on taking punitive measures.
Turkey had cultivated strong relations with former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef who lost his position as an heir to the thrown a few days ago. The demand for the Turkish military to leave Qatar reflects the strained relations between Ankara and the new Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who has rejected all invitations to visit Turkey. In the long term, it means a fundamental change of the Middle East political landscape.
In the long term, the escalation puts an end to the coalition of states that have supported Sunni Arab rebels in Syria. It happens at a moment they badly need assistance to repel the upcoming offensives to squeeze them out from the Syrian province of Idlib. The Turkey-Saudi partnership was viewed as essential to curb Iranian influence in Iraq. Now, Iran will gain.
It has been reported recently that Saudi Arabia plans to support Kurdish groups in Syria against Turkey. According to reports, it does not boil down to Syria only. The Kingdom makes overtures to the Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey itself. If the overtures turn into real aid, this will signify a game-changing development to reshape the Middle East political map.
The United States also supports the Kurds, particularly in Syria. The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has recently set a date on an independence referendum to take place in September. Iraq and Turkey have vehemently opposed the move, but Washington has been silent. All of a sudden, some Kurds expressed their support for the Saudi position. «Saudi Arabia is an important power in the region and it must play its role in promoting stability in Syria. We are ready to cooperate with Saudi», said top Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed, on a visit to Washington to discuss the ongoing Raqqa operation.
Qatar hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East, Al-Udeid, where around 10,000 military personnel are stationed. Doha has just bought US fighter jets for $12 billion and is offering to take a 10% share of American Airlines. The last thing Washington wants is a military intervention.
The US has great interest in military assets on Turkish soil, like Incirlik airbase, for instance. Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies have been considered to be close America’s allies for dozens of years. Now, Washington is at a crossroads. The United States has failed to keep its allies together in a demonstration of its diminished influence in the Middle East.
Qatar has refused to succumb to the pressure. As a result, it will have to accept the Iranian offer to make available two of its ports and use Qatar Airways cargo planes to bypass the embargo. It will boost its military ties with Turkey and, probably, offer the US more guarantees on the Syrian civil war. Qatar will do its best to avoid direct confrontation while moving to new international partners.
With sanctions slapped against Qatar and Turley, the two countries will become natural allies. A new bloc will emerge in the region. The emerging security will alliance Turkey is combining Turkey’s military and economic potential of the regional power and the Qatar’s financial power. Other countries will join one or another side. The recent developments testify to the fact that the Sunni Muslim world is going through the period of deep divisions. With Iran in the same camp as Qatar and Turkey, it’s not Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims anymore.
The support for Arab Sunni rebels in Syria will probably dwindle as pro-Turkey and pro-Saudi forces will have to choose sides. The US will face a very serious problem if Kurds in Syria and Turley are supported by the Saudi-led bloc. With no unified Saudi-led Sunni Arab bloc behind it, Washington will have less wiggle room during the talks on delineating de-escalation zones. The influence of the Russia-Turkey-Iran coalition in Syria will grow. All major actors involved in the ongoing conflict have taken sides, except Russia. It makes Moscow best suited for heading the mediation efforts to prevent the worst form happening.