PRESIDENT DONALD Trump’s 20 May visit to Saudi Arabia, for a summit of the six Gulf Arab states and 49 other Arab and Muslim-majority countries, was very pleasing to the corrupt rulers of the desert kingdom.
Dropping the Islamophobic “clash of civilisations” rhetoric of his election campaign, Trump managed to stick to the usual cant about mutual tolerance and respect for Islam as a religion of peace that has been in almost every US President’s script almost since time immemorial. He promised the assembled leaders not to “seek to impose our way of life on others”, and to “seek gradual reforms, not sudden intervention”.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka praised Saudi Arabia’s “progress” on women’s rights, and in return Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) donated $100 million to her fund for aspiring female Arab entrepreneurs. Her husband (and her father’s Senior Adviser) Jared Kushner meanwhile negotiated a $110 billion US-Saudi arms deal, possibly the biggest in US history.
But this was anything but business-as-usual. Trump made a keynote speech accusing Iran of promoting terror “from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen” and castigated Iran for its “destabilising interventions” in Syria (which Trump, for once accurately, said had enabled Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship to commit “unspeakable crimes”). Calling on “all nations of conscience” to “isolate Iran”, Trump made other comments that initially went almost unnoticed.
Arguing that “the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy [Islamic State and other terrorism] for them”, he stated that “America is committed to adjusting our strategies to meet evolving threats and new facts”, adding that he would “discard those strategies that have not worked”.
This apparent warning that the Arab regimes would have to take on a greater share of the burden of fighting Islamic State, however, looks less mysterious when one recalls that his predecessor Barack Obama’s war against Islamic State relied heavily on cooperation with Iran, and in particular with Iran’s allied sectarian Shiite militias in Iraq.
Legalised by the Iraqi government under the umbrella of the “Popular Mobilisation Forces”, these militias fought alongside US Special Forces in Iraq, and alongside the Assad dictatorship’s forces in Syria. Under Obama, a US-recruited Syrian militia calling itself the “New Syrian Army” (often misreported in both Russian and Western media as a Syrian “rebel” group) fought alongside them. Under Trump, however, this same outfit has been engaged in a deadly race with its former allies for control of Syria’s porous desert borders with Jordan and Iraq.
Policy reversal provokes a regional crisis
In fact, Trump was announcing a major reversal of US policy. Where Obama had sought a rapprochement and expanded cooperation with Iran as a means of pulling it away from Russia, Trump seems to want a deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that will give the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel a free hand against Iran. And where Obama had previously restrained his Saudi and Israeli allies from precipitous actions against Iran, Trump now giving them a green light.
This quickly became clear when Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s criticisms of Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric (and his warnings to other Gulf states about Trump’s weakness and domestic unpopularity) provoked a regional crisis. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE all cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar on 5 June. A few days earlier on 27 May, Thani had congratulated Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani on his re-election, while Qatar accused its regional opponents of disseminating alleged “fake news” published on Qatari news websites during a so far unattributed hacking attack.
The same four states have since banned Qatari media, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE have placed restrictions on Qatari shipping and food imports, and have ordered Qatari citizens out of their territory. These actions are a declaration of economic war on Qatar, given that it imports more than 90 per cent of its food. So too is the ban on flights through their airspace by Qatar’s national airline. Bahrain’s airspace in particular sits in between Qatar’s and Iran’s, while alternative routes through Iranian, Turkish and Omani airspace (given the effective Saudi and Egyptian air blockade) add thousands of miles to long-haul flights to and from Qatar.
Turkey has since responded by promising to send troops to Qatar, in a warning to Saudi Arabia against any military action. However Trump’s endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s actions (and his boast that he was even responsible for them) caused consternation in US military and foreign policy establishments.
On 14 June, however, US media reported a $21 billion arms deal with Qatar, indicating that the US ruling class is not yet ready to break with Qatar in pursuit of a US-Saudi-Emirati alliance against Iran, despite Trump’s echoing of Saudi accusations that Qatar “funds terrorism”. And by 8 June, the supposed inspirer of the conflict was phoning the Emir “to help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary”.
This may just be Trump’s “art of the deal” in operation, threatening a partner with the direst consequences in the expectation that they will gave in. Or it may be that the politicians and generals in Washington did not want to see the US dog being wagged by its Saudi and Israeli tail.
The Saudi-Qatari rivalry
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have often been regarded as allies on account of their common support for rebel factions in Syria, albeit usually for rival ones. But this cooperation between them has very much been the exception.
For example, Saudi Arabia supports Fatah against Hamas in Palestine; supported Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi’s July 2013 coup against President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt; and supported Libya’s “secular” military strongman Khalifah Haftar against the Tripoli-based Islamist “Libya Dawn” coalition. Qatar was on the opposite side in each of these conflicts, as it also was in Tunisia, where it supported the Islamist Ennahdha-led coalition that followed the January 2011 revolution against the (Saudi-exiled) former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a government since replaced by the Nidaa Tounes coalition of Ben Ali’s former supporters and protégés.
And the reasons for this Saudi-Qatari rivalry very much do involve Iran. Alongside Israel and Egypt, Saudi Arabia has been a key component of the pro-US bloc in the Arab world since the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the pro-US Shah. Qatar, however, has for the last two decades or so been the advocate of an alternative pro-Western regional order, one based on pragmatic accommodation with popular movements like Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, rather than on conflict with them.
Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) provided Qatar with a model for this vision, as later would Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and Tunisia under Ennahdha. Alongside a close alliance with Turkey under the AKP, and a willingness to deal with Iran, this has allowed Qatar a degree of open independence from US policy, one not displayed by Saudi Arabia or by the UAE, even though Qatar itself hosts the biggest US airbase in the entire region and enjoys the “protection” of the US Fifth Fleet.
However, Qatar’s regional policy has been guided as much by an ersatz “liberal” (and broadly pro-Western) Arab nationalism as by the “moderate Islamism” of its regional protégés. Most importantly, Qatar has not shared in the promotion of anti-Shiite sectarianism that has been part of the Saudi kingdom’s “cold war” with Iran, currently being used used justify the murderous Saudi intervention in Yemen, which only Syria can outmatch in terms of savagery and human suffering.
For example, Qatar acted as a broker between the pro-Iranian Hizbollah movement and the pro-Saudi March 14 Coalition in Lebanon in 2005-08. Alongside Turkey, Qatar was also a key ally of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad, at least until Assad’s failed repression of the March 2011 popular uprising against him forced both states into supporting and financing the “armed opposition” to his regime.
In place of the Saudis’ preference for apparently “strong” (but in reality quite brittle) dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, like Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt and Ben Ali’s in Tunisia, Qatar sought a regional order based on more flexible pseudo-democratic and “constitutional” regimes, better able to weather the storms of popular discontent. And despite its own lack of democracy, Qatar welcomed the “Arab Spring” uprisings of early 2011, giving them favourable coverage in its global news outlet Al Jazeera and seeing them as an opportunity to put its strategic vision into practice.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia saw all of the Arab uprisings as a mortal threat. Its willingness to align itself with Turkey and Qatar against Assad was entirely down to its long-term enmity with Assad’s ally Iran, something that thanks to Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia can now pursue without either of them.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
Saudi Arabia’s hostility to Iran is in part a natural consequence of their respective positions as powerful oil-producing states on either side of the Gulf. In addition the Saudi state, with its population of around 33 million (as against Iran’s 80 million) relies on 9 million foreign workers, over half of whom are from non-Arab countries. If Obama’s détente with Iran had released its untapped potential from the straightjacket of US-inspired sanctions, then Iran’s economic (and military) weight could easily have removed the Saudi kingdom’s ruling dynasty from their top perch in the region, if not from their thrones.
Even before 1979, when both states were part of the pro-Western bloc, they pursued a rivalry not entirely unlike the Saudi-Qatari rivalry today. However, the 1979 revolution turned Iran into a deadly enemy of the Saudi kingdom, in part by removing Saudi Arabia’s monopoly on a claim to “Islamic” legitimacy for its regional role, and in part by its effect on the one-fifth to one-quarter of Saudi Arabia’s citizens who are Shiite Muslims. These are concentrated in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing eastern regions, and treated as second-class citizens in a state whose official ideology is a particularly intolerant Salafi strain of Sunni Islam (often, if imprecisely, referred to as “Wahhabism”).
The Iranian revolution created a similarly deadly threat to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a secular nationalist in a Shiite-majority country resting on a state apparatus drawn disproportionately from a Sunni minority that had dominated Iraq since its creation by Britain after the First World War. Alongside Kuwait, the Saudis bankrolled Saddam’s war of aggression against Iran in 1980-88, falling out with his regime afterwards only when Iraq’s own regional ambitions became a threat to the Gulf monarchies that had taken shelter from Iran under Saddam’s “protection”.
Saddam’s overthrow by a US-led invasion in 2003 however removed an obstacle to the expansion of Iran’s influence. This was recognised even by Obama’s predecessor George W Bush, who ultimately had to accept an (indirect) Iranian role in Iraq as a means of “stabilising” the country after the chaos created by the US-led occupation.
Obama’s March 2015 deal with Iran over its nuclear programme was just a hard-headedly pragmatic extension of this policy. However it deeply alienated Saudi Arabia (and Israel). Quite how Trump will be able to reverse it and achieve his “détente” with Russia, no one can say. What is certain is that the contradictions of US policy under Trump could lead to a region-wide conflagration if the Israeli attack dog is allowed off the leash in Gaza, in Lebanon or against Iran’s nuclear installations.
The Syrian war and regional realignments
Turkey’s effective abandonment of the Syrian rebels in late 2016 saw Erdogan seek a separate peace with Russia and the Assad regime at the expense of the Kurds. This has also seen Qatar draw its clients in the Syrian rebel camp away from confrontation with Assad and towards a Turkish-sponsored operation against Islamic State in the north of Syria, whose barely-disguised real objective is to limit the expansion of the US-backed Kurdish Rojava statelet.
This has also produced a split within the Syrian rebels’ own ranks, with an alliance led by the former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front rejecting participation in Erdogan’s “Operation Euphrates Shield” in favour of continuing their war against Assad’s regime from rebel-held Idlib. They, and the civilian communities in whose midst they operate, were on the receiving end of Russian, US and Assad regime airstrikes for several months after the fall of Aleppo to Assad in December 2016.
The USA’s involvement in this bombing campaign came to an end only after Russia pulled the plug on its “security coordination” with US forces, after Trump’s airstrike on an Assad regime airbase in early April (in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun). It has however resumed since (as also has Russia’s cooperation with it), albeit not on the same scale as previously.
Erdogan, however, wants to be given responsibility for policing Idlib in any negotiated settlement as part of an internationally approved “safe zone”. And his participation (and Qatar’s) in talks with Russia and Iran (hosted in the Kazakh capital Astana) is already seeing Turkey and Qatar prepare to take part in a “political settlement” in Syria in which the USA’s involvement is almost minimal.
In particular Qatar, using Iran as an intermediary, has helped its Syrian rebel protégés to negotiate “population exchanges” with the Assad regime, through which Shiite civilians in two rebel-besieged villages have been “evacuated” to regime-held Aleppo, while mainly Sunni civilians in formerly rebel-held towns across the country have similarly been forcibly “evacuated” to rebel-held Idlib.
The risk for US imperialism (and for Saudi Arabia) is that Russia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar between them could negotiate a deal that recognises each of their respective roles in Syria, but without recognising any special role for the USA or for its Syrian Kurdish clients, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The nightmare prospect of Turkish and Qatari recognition of an Iranian role in Syria is what really lies behind Saudi Arabia accusations that Qatar “supports” Iran, al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
That said, the YPG like the Syrian rebels before them could soon discover that they are so much small change to be traded in, if the regional and global powers can strike a deal with each other at their expense.
Falling out over the spoils
Qatar clearly does not share Saudi Arabia’s enthusiasm for a regional conflict with Iran, which could endanger its own energy reserves and shipping. Qatar, however, also hosts the US command responsible for the USA’s air war in Syria and Iraq, and the airbase complex from which this war has been conducted.
This might appear to make Trump’s support for the Saudis rather ill-timed, given the USA’s impending YPG-supported assault on Raqqa, Islamic State’s last remaining stronghold in Syria. This assault is expected to make the USA’s recent “liberation” of Mosul in Iraq (assisted by Iran), and the joint US, Russian and Assad regime bombing of Syria’s Idlib region seem positively restrained in terms of civilian casualties.
But it is no coincidence that the global coalition against Islamic State is starting to fall apart now, as the rival victors prepare to struggle with each other over the spoils. Iran wants to make permanent its current role in Syria, and with it the land bridge connecting it to Hizbollah in Lebanon through Syria and Iraq. Trump, however, wants to sever this land bridge (or at least to place it under control), to placate Israel and the Saudis. He ultimately hopes to exclude Iran from Syria altogether, and possibly even from Iraq.
The is a risky game to put it mildly, given Iran’s role over the last decade in enabling the USA to preserve order in Iraq. And given the Saudis’ inability to replace Iran in this role while they are stuck in a bloody quagmire of their own making in Yemen, this could provoke further chaos in Iraq, including through the reemergence of an Islamic State presently facing defeat.
Far from separating Russia from Iran, Trump could force them closer together, solidifying two directly-opposed regional blocs, with the USA supported by Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and the YPG. In turn, NATO member Turkey’s hostility to the YPG could force it even further out of the USA’s orbit, possibly even taking Qatar with it.
For these and other reasons, voices from within the “liberal” wing of the US ruling class are sounding the alarm about Trump’s anti-Iranian policy, even while they continue to denounce his “softness” towards Russia. But their differences with Trump are not about his taste for war, but merely over his choice of targets.
War threats in Lebanon and Rojava
The most immediately likely threat is of an Israeli assault on Hizbollah in Lebanon, in revenge for Israel’s de facto defeat there in 2006. How Russia might respond, given Putin’s competition with Trump for the favours of Israel’s premier Benjamin Netanyahu, and given his own past willingness to let Israel strike at Hizbollah targets in Syria, is open to question.
An Israeli attack could also provoke civil war in Lebanon, where the pro-Saudi prime minister Saad Hariri co-exists uneasily with the pro-Assad president Michel Aoun. The latter is supported by Hizbollah, whose armed militia easily outnumbers the fragile Lebanese Army, although it is also overstretched by its bloodstained support for Assad in Syria.
But this could equally provoke a retaliation against the USA’s Kurdish protectorate in Rojava, where Russia and Iran might well be able to rely on Turkey’s neutrality, or even on Turkey’s (direct or indirect) participation on their side.
A regional war could see the USA and its allies, the past supporters of the Turkish state’s war against “its” Kurds (and of Saddam Hussein’s) claim to be defending “Kurdish self-determination” in Syria; while Russia and Iran, alongside Hizbollah the foreign occupiers in Assad’s rump statelet, claim to defend “Syria’s sovereignty” (and Lebanon’s). Both will accuse the other side of “supporting terrorism”.
However, both “camps” in this war, viewed on a global and regional scale, are thoroughly reactionary, even if its immediate victims on either side will be justified in their in their defence of their own homes and lands. And under Trump the dangers of an “accidental” outbreak of regional war are now far greater than before.
Socialists and anti-war activists should prepare for a global mass movement against this threat of war, giving no credence to either imperialist-led regional bloc’s lofty claims about their motivations, and emphasising outright opposition to any drive to war in their own countries.
This is the real meaning of the slogan that “the main enemy is at home”. What it definitely does not mean, as some US and European “anti-imperialists” believe, is that “the enemy of my enemy, if not actually my friend, is at least a lesser evil”. Both imperialist camps and their regional allies are our enemies, and the enemies of democracy and social revolution in the Middle East.
A previous online-only article giving an overview of the behaviour of the various global and regional powers’ actions in the Middle East in the context of the war in Syria is available here