Over the past several weeks the just below the surface proxy wars and attempts to forcefully realign Middle Eastern politics, power dynamics, and alliances have come into full view. Over the past two weeks the Saudis and Emiratis have attempted to isolate their erstwhile Qatari partner. Turkey and Iran have come to Qatar’s aid as a result of the Saudi led blockade. ISIL conducted an attack in Iran and Iran retaliated with a missile strike on ISIL in Syria. We’ve also had ongoing Saudi operations against the Zaydi/Fiver Shi’a Houthis in Yemen and the ongoing low intensity war in Libya.
All of these actions and events have one thing in common: they are all about attempts to forcefully realign the politics, power dynamics, and alliances within the Middle East. A significant portion of this attempt to remake the Middle East’s political map is the result of a several year old proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey for hegemony in the Middle East. This proxy war is being fought over who will be the preeminent regional power; a power that will speak not just for the region, but for Islam. And this latter component is a major complication. The Saudis are promoting the Wahhabi understanding of tawheed – the radical unity of the Deity, which also forms the basis for both al Qaeda’s and ISIL’s doctrine/theology. Iran seeks hegemony not just to represent the Ithna Ashari/Twelver Shi’a that are the majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, a significant plurality in Lebanon, a significant minority in Syria – including the Alawite sect, and are a minority in several of the other Gulf states, but also on behalf of the Ismaili/Sevener and Zaydi/Fiver Shi’a throughout the region. Finally, Erdogan’s Turkey seeks to not just reassume its historic role of being the North-South and East-West bridge and power player in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the trans-Caucasus, but also to represent and speak for Islam throughout the region. Specifically Erdogan’s politicized Islam.
Against this backdrop we also have the ongoing activities of al Qaeda’s regional proxies throughout the Middle East, as well as ISIL’s ever more tenuous attempt to hold on to actual physical territory as part of their self proclaimed caliphate: the Islamic State/al dawlah al Islamiyah.
The events of the past several weeks are not sudden developments, rather they are just the most recent eruptions of actions and decisions and jockeying for position that go back years. For instance, the Qatari government has long been a funder of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups throughout the region. And so has Saudi Arabia and many of the other Gulf Cooperation Council states. The Qataris, the Saudis, and the other GCC member states fund these groups because they allow them to either punch above their weight class (Qatar) or act through proxies to prosecute their regional disputes (Saudi Arabia). One of the reasons that Saudi’s leadership is upset with Qatar is that they’re often funding groups that are in opposition to each other. Simply put Saudi finds Qatar’s use of its wealth to meddle in regional affairs to be interfering in Saudi Arabia’s attempt to use its wealth to meddle in regional affairs in such a way as to allow Saudi Arabia to emerge as the new regional hegemon.
The proximate cause of the dispute appears to involve three related things. The first is the attempt by Saudi’s Deputy Crown Prince and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince to both extend their interests in the Middle East and to cultivate and manipulate the President. The second, more excuse to provide cover for the blockade than anything else, is Saudi discontent with Qatar’s payment of almost $1 billion in ransom money. Ransom money that went to both Iranian security officials and an al Qaeda faction in Syria. The final straw that broke the camel’s back was a Russian active measure directed against the Emir of Qatar. Specifically the hacking of a Qatari state news agency and placement of a completely fabricated news report about the Emir of Qatar’s remarks at a graduation ceremony. This fabricated report, of remarks that were never made, included a transcript of the remarks the Emir never made. These remarks included statements of support for Iran and Israel. It is interesting to note that in the two weeks prior to the hack a series of fourteen different op-eds were published in US news outlets asserting that Qatar was a regional security threat.
All of this is an attempt to suck the US into taking sides in the various proxy wars and disputes being contested in the attempt to force a realignment within the region. These proxy wars don’t just include funding extremist groups and providing intelligence support to different groups and factions throughout the Middle East. They also include trying to influence the US to take specific actions and choose up sides. This is done in a number of ways. From the attempts by Saudi’s Deputy Crown Prince and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince to cultivate the President for their own ends, to manipulating American public opinion, to manipulating America’s strategy and policy debates about the region. This latter activity is exceedingly important. All of the GCC states, awash with money, spend significantly large amounts to forcefully change the direction of US strategy and policy to suit their own ends. They do this by lavishly funding think tanks and research institutes whose fellows and scholars then author reports and position papers, serve as consulting subject matter experts and expert witnesses, and write op-eds all about what the US should do and on whose behalf it should be done. As a result the US’s policy and strategy boundaries are not only heavily influenced, but also heavily limited by the activities of fellows and scholars at think tanks and research centers that are funded by a number of different wealthy state actors and hyper-wealthy elite individuals.
Russia’s active measures against Qatar were something else. In many ways the actual target of that action was not the Emir of Qatar. Rather it was the President of the US via its other regional ally Saudi Arabia. Russia’s goal is to create chaos and suck the US deep into it in order to weaken the US. Creating conditions for the President to support Saudi’s blockade of Qatar does just this. Over 11,000 US military personnel, as well as a significant chunk of DOD and Service civilians and contractors are assigned to CENTCOM’s regional headquarters at al Udied Air Base in Qatar*. Al Udied is often the US’s only regional air base for coalition air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as to provide air support for ongoing US and NATO operations in Afghanistan.
Russia’s isolation of Qatar by manipulating information and psychological operations to create a Saudi blockade of Qatar was a good first step in achieving both its regional goals and its anti-US objectives. Iran and Turkey recognizing an opening through which they could achieve their own objectives by providing blockade and security relief to Qatar, further complicating things, was an even better result. The President endorsing the blockade of a vital regional partner that houses CENTCOM’s regional headquarters was, perhaps, the best result that Russia could achieve short of everyone being ordered out of al Udied while the US and its Coalition partners seek to prosecute the war against ISIL.
What remains to be seen is what happens next. Whether cooler heads will prevail or not. There have been recent reports that US allies have been informed that Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson are making relevant policy, not the President. There have also been reports that two LTG Flynn holdovers (Flynnstones) on the National Security Staff are seeking to push the US into a war with Iran over the objections of Secretary Mattis and General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And there is a real worry that regardless of who is actually making relevant policy, that policy development and strategy formulation is significantly hampered by the dearth of appointed staff at the Department of Defense, each of the military Services, and the Department of State. As a result the commanders on the ground, operating under policies and strategies carried over from the Obama Administration, are formulating and executing their theater strategy without sufficient input and oversight from the National Command Authority. No matter how good these commanders are at their jobs, no matter how well meaning, eventually the enemy’s votes will begin to matter and/or their decision making will be overcome by ongoing events in theater.
* Before anyone asks, the Qataris spent over a billion dollars of their own money to build al Udied Air Base. They did this because they wanted the US to put CENTCOM’s regional headquarters there. So Qatar is definitely paying up.