It does not take a great analyst or a spellbinding prophecy to predict that things will not be calm in the Middle East in the coming years. A quick look at the morning news reveals that the entire region faces serious risks as it suffers from violent conflict. One day everyone was talking about the Raqqa operation, yet now, all eyes are fixed on the situation in Qatar and the Daesh attacks in Iran.
Needless to say, the current crisis is a prelude to Qatar’s disciplining, the deeper polarization between Iran and the Gulf and the undermining of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Some analysts argue that the most recent developments in the Middle East could lead to a region-wide conflict or war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In truth, every new crisis in the region can be considered an aftershock of the Arab Spring. Starting in late 2010, a series of revolts undermined the Western-backed authoritarian status quo of the post-World War I era in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. However, the winds of change will hit a wall in countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria before too long. Although regional powers played an important role in the transformation of the democratic wave into chaos and violence, it was the effect of former U.S. President Barack Obama that made the real difference. Having failed to keep the promises he made in Cairo and Ankara, former Obama looked the other way as the region set the stage for proxy wars and Daesh terrorism. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Middle East, along with the subsequent diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar and efforts to isolate Iran, arguably represent a new stage in the game. Let’s just call it the Trump effect in the Middle East. The fault lines that Obama created by signing a nuclear deal with Tehran and handing over Syria and Iraq to Iran are now being deepened by his successor, who happens to be moving in the opposite direction.
The most recent developments indicate that proxy wars could soon be replaced by violence between regional powers themselves. In recent months, supporters of the status quo in Gulf countries have been encouraged by Trump’s willingness to push the limits for the sake of selling more guns and attracting new investors. Believing that they could seize this opportunity to address two pressing problems, namely the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iran threat, they took action earlier this week. After the initial threat was neutralized with the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi from power and the labeling of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group by Cairo, what we are seeing this time around is an effort to eliminate the threat of Islamist democracy by forcing Qatar to end its support for Hamas and other Islamist groups in Libya and Syria. At the same time, Gulf countries hope that twisting Doha’s arm will make it easier to form a unified front against Tehran. An added benefit will be to curb Turkey’s influence in the Middle East. Egypt’s participation in an alliance with Ankara and Doha had provided an alternative to the polarization of Iran and the Gulf while the military coup eliminated the country’s nascent democracy. Today, however, disciplining Qatar means that the Gulf-Iran rivalry will be the only game in town.
Currently, all players capable to balancing this rivalry are being forced to choose sides in the conflict that is now brewing. At a time when regional powers are preparing for confrontation, however, it would appear that everyone is missing the fact that Washington’s Middle East policy since the Arab Spring has disproportionately served Israel’s interests. The Qatar crisis will lead to the sidelining of Hamas and increase the likelihood of violent conflict between the Gulf and Iran – two things that the Israelis desperately want. As senior Israeli officials have been saying for some time, Middle Eastern politics are no longer determined by tensions between Arab states and Tel Aviv. Step by step, an alliance between Israel and the Gulf is emerging for the stated purpose of fighting extremism and Iran. To be clear, the emerging regional order is unlikely to restore peace and stability in the Middle East. Instead, new terrorist groups – read as proxies – will likely emerge from this situation. The question of whether the regional cold war could evolve into violent conflict thanks to the Trump effect remains unclear. There is one thing we already know, though: That is that there will be more failed states in the Middle East and a more diverse scene of terrorism in our neighborhoods.
Moving forward, the U.S. will likely improve its finances by selling vast amounts of military equipment to regional powers. If Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani ends up accepting Trump’s invitation to the White House, chances are the two leaders will negotiate a new military and investment deal.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on June 9, 2017.