Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (left) meets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Ankara, June 2017. Credit: © Yasin Bulbul - Photo: 2017

Syria, Qatar and Gaza: Plot Thickens in the Middle East

Analysis by Pier Francesco Zarcone*

ROME (IDN) – We know that international legality goes no further than pious aspirations, so all that counts is force and tactical-strategic capacity of its use.

The Syrian crisis

Well, the United States edged its way into Syria on its own account – that is, without the Damascus government having called on it – in order to achieve two interrelated goals.

First, to save the self-styled anti-Assad Syrian Democratic Forces which had suffered blows from both ISIS and the Syrian Arab Army – to the extent that it was necessary to link it up with the Kurdish militia of Syria to give a semblance of existence.

Second, to break the potential territorial continuity between Syria, Iraq and Iran – that is, the so-called “Shiite corridor”.

To date, none of these goals has come to fruition, and Washington is facing complications that are not indifferent.

The use of the Kurds has inevitably led to the hostility of Turkey, NATO’s most important partner in the eastern Mediterranean, and it is practically impossible to rule out that Ankara will stand by without doing anything faced with the rise of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. In this regard, a storm is brewing, from which Russia will benefit.

As for the second point, the failure to interrupt the Shiite corridor, which implied in practice US occupation of south-east Syria, should be noted (US troops were stationed at the al-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq). As the Syrian army approached al-Tanf, the United States responded with bombing and unilaterally declaring a “deconfliction zone” around it.

In this way, it also counted on interrupting Iranian supplies to the Lebanese Hezbollāh; but the fundamental objective was to take control of an area from the Saudi-Iraq border in the province of Al-Anbar – in western Iraq – across south-eastern Syria and north-eastern Syria occupied by the Kurds.

Instead, it was Syrian troops supported by Iraqi troops that connected western Syria with the border north of al-Tanf and met up with the Iraqis north-east of the border crossing, as well as advance towards Abu Kamal and the Euphrates valley.

For its part, the Russian command has warned Washington that military action aimed at changing the situation thus created would be a hostile act to which it would react.

Iran has made itself heard by launching medium-range missile from its territory on ISIS positions in Syria. With missiles launched from its ships in the Mediterranean, Russia has bombed jihadist positions, while Iraqi militias have marched from the south towards al-Tanf. As a result, the small US contingent present there has been put out of harm’s way – at least for the time being.

On Syria, it is interesting to read the recent interview by Robert Ford – US ambassador in that country from 2010 to 2014 – with the Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, which was obviously ignored by the “politically correct” media.

After recalling that at the beginning it was considered safe to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad – while the situation changed following the involvement of Iran, Russia and Hezbollāh, as a result of which the Syrian army recovered and took back increasingly more territory – Ford wanted to warn the Kurds of Syria vis-a-vis the United States, pointing out that Washington never intended to help them in their aspirations once Raqqa had been conquered, thus making it understood that they would find themselves on their own against the governments of Damascus and Ankara.

The Qatari crisis and the Gaza Strip

This crisis is linked to US President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia [in May 2017] and its substance corresponds to the vision of the new US President and to Riyadh’s interests: the main enemy is not ISIS, but once again Iran.

It must be said that the Saudi-Qatari conflict has had immediate wide-ranging consequences: in eastern Africa there has been a withdrawal of Qatari troops from the “hot” frontier between Djibouti and Eritrea, stationed since 2010 to end armed clashes caused by an unresolved territorial dispute between the two countries: both Djibouti and Eritrea, in fact, side with Saudi Arabia.

The resulting vacuum could reopen the conflict, perhaps even with the involvement of Ethiopia, which is notoriously hostile to Asmara. And the question has also ended up with involvement of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has sided with Saudi Arabia against Doha, both because of the economic aid it receives from Riyadh and because of Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood which is outlawed in Cairo. The attitude of Hamas regarding this dispute is a bit ambiguous – hence the Egyptian manoeuvres against this organisation.

In short, there appear to have been contacts between Egypt and Fatah to resolve two major problems that squeeze Gaza in a vice: the poor supply of electricity to the Strip – for which Egypt and Israel are jointly responsible – and the closure of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

The problems of Gaza were to be handled by a commission chaired by an exponent of Fatah, Muhammad Dahlan (whom Egypt would like to see as successor to Abu Mazen, president of the Palestinian National Authority), which would find itself administering a 50 million dollar budget – derived from the taxes that the PNA receives in Gaza – and furthermore taking care of relations with Egypt and Israel.

At this point there would be the reopening of Rafah and an increase in Egyptian – and perhaps even Israeli – electricity supplies. Hamas would continue to govern Gaza, but only with regard to internal administration.

The manoeuvre appears to favour Gaza, but actually tends to increase the pressure of Egypt and the PNA on Hamas. And this could lead to a rapprochement between Hamas and Iran which, through General Qassem Soleimani (very active in the struggle against ISIS) and chairman of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani, hastened to congratulate Yahya Sinwar for his recent appointment at the head of Hamas.

The fact that the letters of congratulations were published by Hamas after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia means that this organisation (while being Sunni) could also opt to play the Iranian card.

As regards the specifics of the Qatari crisis, the ultimatum delivered to Doha is divided into 13 points: 1) break all relations with Iran; 2) close the existing Turkish military base and cease military cooperation with Turkey; 3) close the Al Jazeera broadcasting station; 4) no longer fund communication media such as Arabi 21, Rassd, al-Arabi al-Jadid and Middle East Eye; 5) cease funding individuals, groups or organisations considered terrorist by Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and United States; 6) break relations with Hezbollāh, Al-Qaeda and ISIS; 7) extradite terrorists from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain and provide all information concerning them; 8) not interfere in the internal affairs of those countries, not grant nationality to their citizens wanted by the aforementioned countries and cancel any citizenship already granted; 9) suspend support for political opponents in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain; 10) compensate them for previous support; 11) align itself militarily, politically, socially and economically with the Arab Gulf states; 12) submit itself to monthly supervision in the first year, and for the next ten years be monitored annually to verify compliance with the previous points; and 13) accept the ultimatum by July 3.

We will see.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that this crisis is changing relations of force in the area.

The November 2016 agreement between Turkey and Qatar for the establishment of a substantial Turkish military base in Qatar has been ratified by parliament in Ankara – a base which, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, should ensure security in the Persian Gulf.

In this regard, the question arises of the relationship between this base and that of the US base already operating in Qatar.

Here, the Turkish press (which cannot be said to be independent from the government) is pessimistic in a significant way: from the daily Hürriyet, which forecasts difficult times for the area, to Yeni Şafak, whose director has clearly argued that the task of the Turkish troops in that country is to avoid a coup against the emir and that if the United States take possession of Doha, Turkey will soon suffer the same fate!

At this point, something unthinkable presents itself on the horizon: two traditional and secular enemies – Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran – find themselves side by side (albeit for tactical reasons).

Again taking into account the subordinate position of the Turkish press towards the government, the space given to the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent visit to Ankara [in June 2017] and the inherent positive assessments have a clear significance.

* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Red (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: La Quinta (The Fifth). This article was originally published in Italian under the title Syria, Qatar e Gaza: Nel Vicino Oriente il Quadro Si Complica in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 4 July 2017]

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister meets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Ankara, June 2017. Credit: © Yasin Bulbul

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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