Since the last week, the Gulf region has been experiencing one of its most serious political crises in recent history. Even though diplomatic efforts have been continuing to resolve the crisis that started after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, possibility of military conflict is not out of the question. Daily Sabah talked with Dr. Ufuk Ulutaş who is the Foreign Policy Studies director at the SETA Foundation and the author of the recently published book titled "The State of Savagery: DAESH in Syria." Dr. Ulutaş said the current crisis did not emerge out of the blue and reminded that there has been an ongoing rivalry between Gulf countries, especially between Qatar and the UAE, for a longtime.
Ufuk Ulutaş (L) with Daily Sabah's Ali Ünal
On the contrary, to the popular view Dr. Ulutaş believes that this crisis is not about supporting terrorist organizations. He also underlined that if Qatar agrees with the terms of the U.S. and other regional powers, the country will once again be praised for its partnership in fighting terrorism. Ulutaş believes that Qatar will use every means and channel to resolve the issue through political dialogue while stressing that more violent alternatives may be employed if the crisis worsens and political dialogue is not an option.
Regarding Turkey's position toward the crisis, Ulutaş said Turkey has to manage a crisis between two countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with which it has strategic relations and therefore, the country is calling for political dialogue.
Daily Sabah: Why did the recent crisis between Qatar and other Gulf countries emerge?
Ufuk Ulutaş: There has been ongoing rivalry between Gulf countries, especially between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a long time. It's a region where Saudi Arabia is the dominant power. In recent years, the UAE has increased its operational capabilities and gained influence beyond its size. Also in the recent years, Qatar substantially increased its area of influence through political, financial and media investments. I believe Qatar has invested strategically in its regional policies, contrary to most analyses on Qatar. While the country is usually analyzed in a linear, unidimensional manner, Qatar has always aimed to diversify its investment and relations. Regarding relations with the countries of the region, Qatar wants Turkey to establish a base in Qatar, while simultaneously developing relations with the GCC. Moreover, Qatar establishes financial relations with Iran over natural gas reserves, meanwhile fighting against Iran in Syria through proxies. On the issue of media, while Al-Jazeera in Arabic is a conservative media outlet, its English version is quite liberal. Thus, it's safe to say that Qatar is always seeking to diversify its relations by investing different components of both the Islamic and Western world.
Due to its policies of diversification, especially 2011 and onward, Qatar has been in conflict with certain countries in the region, especially with the Gulf countries. This schism between Qatar and the other Gulf countries became apparent with their disparate approaches to Egypt during the Arab Spring. While Qatar was supporting the popularly elected government in Egypt, UAE and certain factions within Saudi Arabia were on the side of the junta. These conflicting dispositions resulted in the said crisis of 2014.Qatar was isolated and faced diplomatic sanctions during the crisis. As Qatar took a step back and compromised with the Gulf countries in certain matters, the relations were mended. Therefore, the current crisis didn't emerge out of the blue.
During the Arab Spring, certain distinctions emerged between Qatar's and the Gulf countries' foreign policy engagements. This also has larger implications going beyond the Gulf. For instance, Hamas is one of them. As the Trump administration renewed its support to Israel, attempts are being made to dismantle Hamas now. As the organization's leadership resides in the country, pressure is building on Qatar. In this respect, I'm seeing the recent crisis as the first step towards new political engineering in the region.
I've coined the current state of events as "The Status Quo Spring," which is the direct opposite of the Arab Spring. People took to the streets to protest for their individual and social rights and freedoms during the Arab Spring; now, the Status Quo Spring is an attempt to reverse Arab Spring by consolidating the pre-Arab Spring order. Currently, there are efforts to establish the coup general Khalifa Haftar as the leader in Libya, while Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's rule is being reinforced internationally and financially. On the other hand, there are some Middle Eastern countries led by Egypt and the UAE that are signaling an agreement with the Assad regime in Syria. Measures are being taken to undermine and halt movements of change in the Middle East. Deemed as a thorn in the side, Qatar's regional policies are being targeted. This is what they are saying to Qatar: withdraw your support from groups in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Palestine, so that we can revert the Middle East to its pre-Arab Spring status quo.
DS: So, contrary to popular belief, this is not about supporting terrorist organizations?
UU: It's definitely not about it. Just by looking at the statements of certain U.S. institutions and organizations, you would see that this is merely a pretext. Trump said that all Gulf countries were pointing towards Qatar; meanwhile, the Pentagon asserted that Qatar is one of the most prominent partners in the fight against terrorism. About supporting terrorism, Saudi Arabia had recently faced similar accusations by the U.S.; however, the current U.S. position is entirely the opposite. Turkey, at the time, criticized the "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act," backing Saudi Arabia. In this respect, Qatar being accused of supporting terrorism serves as means for the legitimization of the current operation. The issue here is that Qatar's foreign policy engagements being an obstruction to the reestablishment of the regional status quo. Therefore, if Qatar agrees the terms of the U.S. and other regional powers, the country will once again be praised for its partnership in fighting terrorism.
DS: There are some allegations stressing that the natural gas agreement between Qatar and Iran caused this crisis. What is your take on this matter?
UU: I don't believe Iran is a significant factor in this crisis. If financial relations, or energy relations in this case, would cause such a crisis, the UAE would also be having a crisis with the Gulf countries, as it has deeper ties with Iran in this sense. As you know, there is a strong sentiment against Iran in the Gulf region; so, they are using this sentiment to consolidate and mobilize the Gulf countries against Qatar.
As a matter of fact, Qatar is in active conflict with Iran in Syria; Qatar-backed groups are fighting against Iran-backed groups there. In this respect, Qatar's position towards Iran isn't that different from the general position of the Gulf, specifically the Saudi position. There might be nuances, but no substantial difference. Moreover, Qatar would support an operation to contain Iran and Iran's influence. Therefore, Iran is only being used as a pretext against Qatar, analogous to the allegations of Qatar supporting the terrorist organization.
DS: Would political dialogues yield any results?
UU: I believe dialogue could yield results; however, certain conditions have to be satisfied to find middle ground. I believe the anti-Qatar bloc has not been a monolithic body. The UAE and Egypt are leading the anti-Qatar campaign and advocating for more extreme measures. Certain elements within the Saudi Kingdom go with the UAE position; however, there are also others who believe that the accusations and sanctions went a bit too far. For the political dialogue to yield any result, the UAE element must be restraint and the Saudis must bring some moderation to the current state of affairs. One should note here that the anti-Qatar sanctions have not mustered enough support from the international community except for the close circle of Trump; and major world leaders voiced their criticisms. Even the U.S. administration seems to be divided on the issue as Trump and the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made two conflicting statements on Qatar. Notwithstanding, Qatar might have to make some compromises, similar to the crisis of 2014. A dialogue attempt after these steps would possibly yield positive results. The Gulf countries must understand that the current Qatar crisis is injurious for the Gulf and the Middle East in general. Only three countries would benefit from such an operation: Israel, Iran and the UAE.
DS: Beside political and diplomatic dialogue, the possibility of an administration change in Qatar or even assassination and coup are being discussed by the foreign press. How do you evaluate this situation?
It's about how the political dialogue will go. As far as I can see, they want to permanently resolve the Qatar issue. The coalition against Qatar is broad, but not monolithic. As I mentioned before, while some prefer resorting to extreme measures, there are others who believe Qatar taking some steps back would suffice to mend the relations. In this respect, the scope of the operation will vary in accordance with the disposition of the dominant faction. Those who want to resort to drastic measures may attempt certain coups; as they have experience in staging or financing coups abroad. To prevent change in the Middle East, a lot of blood was spilt. Still, I have to say, this is not going to be such an easy task in Qatar. Qatar has international legitimacy and strong lobbying power abroad. Also, the ruling elite in Qatar is a small one and has good relations with the people. Moreover, the people of Qatar are also endorsing the country's foreign policy. Considering these factors, I believe such measures won't be easy to execute and enforce. For this reason, they will first engage in political dialogue. Turkey and Kuwait have stepped up to the plate; however, I believe mediation by a Western country, like the US, will be more decisive in having an ultimate agreement.
DS: In the worst case, would the escalating tensions evolve in to an armed conflict in the region? Moreover, there are allegations that this crisis is setting the base for a war between Sunnis and Shiites. What is your opinion on these matters?
We have to take all possibilities into consideration in the Middle East. The block against Qatar is hell bent on enforcing the pre-Arab Spring status quo. To achieve this end, thousands were massacred in Egypt and hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Syria. As the status quo resorts to such drastic measures to achieve their goal, we shouldn't dismiss any possibilities. Yet, I believe escalated tensions evolving into armed conflict would harm the anti-Iran block in a time when alliances are being made. For this reason, all actors will think at least twice before resorting to armed conflict. Secondly, Qatar is an important country in terms of energy-politics; therefore, no one would want to pay the price of such a crisis. Another aspect of this issue is the diverse relations Qatar has with the Gulf countries; Qatar will use every means and channel to resolve the issue through political dialogue. While it is not a real possibility in current conditions, more violent alternatives may be employed if the crisis worsens and political dialogue is not an option.
On the other hand, it's irrational to spark a war between Sunnis and Shiites over the Qatar crisis. Iran has already killed tens of thousands of Sunnis in Syria; this would have been a sufficient casus belli for a sectarian war. There is definitely a tension between the said sects and there are sectarian conflicts in certain countries as well; therefore, linking a rather long-existing issue with the Qatar crisis is not very meaningful. As I have said before, despite nuances, Qatar's disposition toward Iran is not any different from the remaining Gulf countries.
DS: How do you evaluate Turkey's position on this issue?
It's a difficult situation for Turkey, as it is a multifaceted issue. It has a regional and a bilateral component to it. In terms of bilateral relations, Turkey has to manage a crisis between two countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that it has strategic relations with. Turkey has made strategic investments to both of the said countries, especially to Saudi Arabia recently. Turkey is trying to protect these investments, not wanting this crisis affect its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For this reason, Turkey is calling for a political dialogue. President Erdoğan has held some meetings for it as well.
DS: However, President Erdoğan's statements were mostly asserting that these accusations against Qatar were fabricated. In this respect, the international media alleged that Turkey is siding with Qatar.
After Saudi Arabia was accused by the U.S. of endorsing terrorism, Turkey had extended its support to the country. This is the same with Qatar. The key issue here is the accusation being used as a political tool. Turkey believes that such accusations harm the region and causes discord among Gulf Cooperation Council members. This isn't siding with a certain country; it is expressing an opinion on a matter. Turkey's position is more of a mediator. Meanwhile, Turkey is performing its task to protect Qatari people from being harmed by this event. This is the humanitarian aspect of Turkey's actions.
On the other hand, Turkey believes that Saudi Arabia is facing pressure in isolating Qatar, especially by the UAE and the close circle of Trump inspired by none other than Israel. Other than this, there isn't a rational explanation for Saudi Arabia pressuring Qatar at such a critical time when the Gulf cooperation is a sine qua non to encounter Iranian expansionism. Turkey is affirming this fact and calling both countries for resolving their issues through political dialogue.
DS: How do you evaluate the recent terrorist attacks in Iran? Is there a rising wave of terrorism in Iran?
Before making extensive analyses on the subject, we will have to wait for two things. Firstly, whether attacks of this kind will repeat or not and, secondly, what measures Iran is to take. For instance, will Iran consolidate its presence in Syria – i.e. around Deir ez-Zor- with its regular military using this attack as a pretext? It is hard to establish a pattern with a single attack. On the other hand, many have used Daesh as an excuse to legitimize their interventions abroad; we have to see whether Iran will also use it as an excuse. After we have the answers for all these aspects, we can make an extensive analysis.
On the other hand, there are certain peculiarities about the attack. Firstly, Daesh has never attacked Iran before; why is it attacking Iran now? Daesh refrained from attacking Iran even when the terrorist organization was at its prime; so, attacking Iran at a time when the organization is considered to be dissolving makes little sense, if any. This is one of the most prominent peculiarities. Despite its declared hatred towards the Shia, Daesh not being able to attack Iran can't be explained only by Iran's security measures. Daesh is a large international consortium which includes cells of various intelligence agencies and organizations. In this sense, Daesh cells were activated by certain powers as a means for political ends. The attackers of the recent attack were Iranian citizens and laid dormant until they were activated recently. In my opinion, there are apparent discrepancies in this attack. Nevertheless, whether the attack was done by Daesh or not, we still have to talk about the possibility of an escalation against Iran.
DS: You are implying a possible operation against Iran. What would be the quality and the extent of this operation?
UU: After summit in Riyadh, a regional consensus against Iran was made very clear. Gulf countries, including Qatar, the U.S., and Israel, even though indirectly, are a part of this consensus. Meanwhile, there are other actors, in which Turkey could be included, that seek to limit Iran's influence in the region. Countries' bilateral relations with Iran are a different matter, but it is obvious that all countries of the region are discomforted, disturbed even, by Iran's regional influence. I believe certain steps will be taken against Iran; not directly, but towards its proxies and affiliates in the region. There are two possible areas for this operation. The first is Yemen, thus Houthis, and the second is Syria. In Syria, the operation will focus especially on Hezbollah. As you know, recently the U.S. has started to directly target Shiite militia in their air raids. I believe the frequency of these raids will increase, while the extent of the operation will be shaped according to Iran's reaction. There will be an attempt to sever the territorial connection between Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. This will most probably occur after Raqqa offensive. If Deir ez-Zor's is liberated, the US will try to use the territory as a buffer between Iran's proxies in Iraq and Syria. This would cause Iran's Syrian strategy to completely cave in; the reason Iran is fighting in Syria is to have a territorial connection with Lebanon.
DS: Is a direct war between the U.S.-led anti-Iran pole and Iran, without any proxies?
UU: It depends on the situation on the ground. Iran stated that they would engage the U.S. forces in case of an attack in Syria, yet it seems highly unlikely. However, if they really do engage the U.S. forces there, the retaliation of the U.S. could lead to such a war.
DS: Would it also lead to a regional war?
UU: Currently, there is already a regional war. In all the crucial zones in the region, such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, proxy wars are raging. This may take it to the next level, making the situation worse.
DS: One day before the Qatar crisis, the UAE ambassador to Washington's mail account was hacked. The emails revealed that the UAE supported the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. How do you evaluate this development?
UU: It's not much of a surprise considering their past deeds. Since the Arab Spring, the UAE has supported counter-revolutions and the dictatorial regimes. Moreover, it also supported the Gezi Park Protests of 2013 in Turkey. The UAE's aim is to conserve the status quo and undermine countries like Turkey that desire change. The UAE has a financial power; they have men carrying and giving out large sums of money in the region. For instance, Mohammed Dahlan is a striking figure in this matter. His name was also mentioned during the Gezi Park Protests. In this respect, it's impossible for the UAE to have no correspondence with Gülenists and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). Both the UAE and FETÖ have similar readings of the world and the region. They have their own agenda yet they both are also a part of a larger scheme in which Israel is also a component. All of these actors are encouraging each other against countries like Turkey to reach their ends.
On the other hand, I believe there might be more incriminating emails of the UAE ambassador that are yet to be made public, especially about UAE's ties with FETÖ and the coup attempt. Let's remember that John Hannah of FDD, which had correspondence with the UAE ambassador, wrote a piece to Foreign Policy about a possible coup in Turkey, long before the actual coup attempt. As you know, coups are usually legitimized through such publications and news coverage beforehand.
The steps in legitimization of a coup are pretty straight forward: they first talk about the necessity of a coup, then provide certain operational and informational support and lastly they provide financial aid, if it is necessary. This is what happened in Egypt; the UAE has financially supported the coup. Regarding FETÖ, the UAE didn't have to support them financially, as the terrorist organization had amassed a fortune by defrauding people. This is also the case in Somalia; a high-ranking U.N. official once told me that the UAE affiliates were carrying cases full of cash to certain individuals in the country, buying them to realize their own agenda.