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Trump’s Sword Dance on the Middle East ‘Grand Chessboard’

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By Shehab Al Makahleh – 

Literally overnight Trump’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia, aimed to bolster Arab unity against terrorism and Iran, has triggered a political earthquake in the Gulf and beyond. The Saudi Arabia-led diplomatic war against Qatar declared only a week after Riyadh Summit ended leaves the Arab NATO formation, envisioned as a guarantor of Sunni Arab states security, uncertain. Along with the fears of a large regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is now hanging in the air along with the US CENTCOM headquarters at Al Udeid airbase near Doha.

Meanwhile, without pomp and circumstance surrounding Trump’s Saudi visit, Russia and China, on June 9 in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana fortified the foundations of the Asian security bloc by officially admitting India and Pakistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with only Iran and Afghanistan left to join. Earlier on Friday, Syrian and Iraqi armies retook control over border area with Jordan. Russian Ministry of Defense declared Syrian civil war nearly over.

The historic arms deal Trump inked with Saudi Arabia was followed by a succession of extremely important political events in the region with potential of changing the existing regional order, but this time unlikely under the American watch.

First, Iranians reelected a reformist president Rouhani who reiterated Iran’s will for comprehensive collaboration among the Persian Gulf states while asking Western powers to stay away from the region.

On the other side of the Gulf Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister Mohamed bin Salman nearly declared war on Iran, stating that Saudis will ensure to take the war to Tehran, before Iran gets a chance to start the war. Similar threats directed at Iran were repeated by the Saudi FM only a day before the twin terror attacks rocked the capital Tehran two days ago, an attack later claimed by Daesh, but some Iranian officials and media blamed it on Saudis and Washington. Earlier on Friday, Iranian intelligence ministry stated that 50 Daesh terrorists were arrested in relation to the attacks.

Secondly, merely 48 hours following American Arab Summit in Riyadh Doha’s official state news agency website published controversial statements attributed to the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim, in which he was quoted describing tensions with US president Trump, speculating about the future of his presidency, while calling Iran a great Islamic power, and praising Palestinian Hamas. Although official Qatar quickly denied the statements as false, claiming that the website was hacked, the news were taken by the Saudi and Emirati media and went viral causing uproar and a strong condemnation of Qatar as the sponsor of terrorism by both leading GCC states.

In few days the event escalated into an unprecedented diplomatic crisis. Saudis and the UAE severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, with Bahrain and Egypt soon following suit. To make matters worse Qatari diplomats were immediately expelled, while its citizens were asked to leave both countries within two weeks while the land, sea and air borders were nearly immediately shut, effectively putting the tiny nation under the siege. The American media started speculating about Russian actors behind the Qatari news agency hack, for which Doha requested FBI assistance in investigating.

The grand game that shocked the region and the world, soon became complex with the new players’ entry into the fray. Expectations that the blockade would force Qatar into submission had to be as quickly ditched. Two other renegade regional powers, Iran and Turkey came to Qatar’s rescue offering provision of food and military assistance.

On the day following the Saudi and Emirati shutting of land, sea and air space for Qatari passage, Turkish parliament passed the law allowing the rapid troop deployment to its military base in Qatar. In a similar vein, German parliament approved transferring its troops from the NATO member Turkey’s Incirlik base to non-NATO ally Jordan. Saudi for their part deployed around 3500 troops to Bahrain. Qatari foreign minister went to Germany and Moscow to seek mediation assistance, while US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson called for easing the blockade but his plea went largely ignored. On the other hand, US president Trump praised Qatar as a reliable partner while at the same time approving the Gulf states’ blockade as a positive move against ‘funding terrorism’.

For Trump, something seems to have gone wrong somewhere along his first foreign trip as a president, as his actions seem to work against those they are aimed to help, unless he is intentionally deceiving them.

For example, the missile strike on Syrian airbase two months ago following allegations of chemical weapons use by the government against militant held area, at the height of Syrian Army and allies’ military victories across the country, has accomplished close to nothing for the US. As for Syria, the strike incurred loss of lives of several servicemen, and a minor damage to the base. The anti-terrorist flights continued with more resolve within 24 hours, while also strengthening the already existing Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance.

Trump’s critics at first praised his missile attack move, and demanded more US military action in Syria, but quickly grew frustrated as nothing similar followed. Trump then made another bold move that estranged and enraged some of the US allies in the region when he announced the arming of the Syrian Kurds. The announcement was followed by the visit of Turkish president to Washington, which further confirmed Erdogan’s fears that the good relations with Washington are over with the new sheriff in town. The unsuccessful Washington meeting and arming of Kurds pushed Turkish president to change direction and join Russia and Iran as guarantors of the Russian proposed de-escalation zones in Syria. Washington did not object to the idea of de-escalation zones.

When the Saudi arms deal was announced, Trump’s critics slammed it as an attempt to shun dissent at home and pacify his adversaries in Washington and Pentagon. International human rights organizations decried Saudi atrocities in Yemen, but Trump was unmoved. The deal made Saudis blissful, and assured that the good terms with the US are restored again following period of cooling under Obama.

Upon returning home Trump had to face up to more criticism and unending ‘Russian election hacking’ and ‘collusion’ allegations and the Congressional testimony of the former FBI director James Comey. Despite lengthy narrative, the former FBI head did not proffer any evidence to the allusions of Russian interference in the US elections, and yet the majority of the media and his usual antagonists would not let Trump do the job he was elected for. The CNN called the testimony an “anti-Trump witch hunt”, while Washington Post columnist called it “devastating to Trump”.

Looking at the immediate effects of the Saudi deal and the Qatar crisis, one may be prone to ask if Donald Trump is now working for Iran, or executing an old policy that would see existing borders redrawn, with three major regional countries ― Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia ― fragmented and balkanized? Or, if one would just recall his campaign trail message, then Trump’s actions are nothing but keeping the promise of rebuilding America.

Middle East might not be on Trump’s policy priority list, and he is likely to let regional powers tend for themselves, just as he campaigned. The message he delivered at Riyadh Summit, despite the sword dance, was that America under his mantle will provide the guidance but the national defense would be left to each partner to fend for.

The Saudi – Qatar rift has exposed some nasty details about the multidirectional rivalry within the GCC. If the trip to Riyadh and the arms deal intention was to embolden Saudis to expose their weaknesses then Trump has really made a masterful move. Not only that he eased Saudis for a lofty sum of $110 billion but the entire notion of Saudi leadership of the Sunni Arab world has been brought into question. The only problem is the Saudis, like a cuckold husband, seem to be the last ones to find out.

On a final note, the rift has brought together seemingly unlikely parties to Qatar’s aid and further emphasized the need for Turkey to pivot towards Russia-Iran axis. The second party in the GCC duo leading diplomatic war against Qatar ― the UAE, continues to depend on and use Qatari gas, while maintaining strong business relations with Iran. In some aspects, it is still business as usual despite the blockade.

In the political analysts’ cycles Syrian war project was code-named ‘Pipeline war’, alluding the joint US-Qatari-Turkish pipeline project traversing Syria, and the Mediterranean, with the aim to wean Europe off Russian gas. The plan was rejected by the Syrian president Assad and the proxy war was waged in order to depose him.

While Russia is the largest, Qatar is the second largest producer and exporter of the natural gas (LNG), and shares its massive gas field with Iran, making it the major regional competitor to the Saudi energy monopoly.

Russia and Iran have over the years of Syrian conflict and Iranian sanctions cemented their bilateral relations to such an extent, that rather than being competitors are believed to be true partners that look after each other’s interests. Bringing Qatar into their fold, along with Turkey completes the Middle Eastern ‘Grand Chessboard’, but with rather different masters at the helm than those envisioned by the original ‘Grand Chessboard’ author’s idea.

US President Donald Trump joins dancers with swords at a welcome ceremony ahead of a banquet at the Murabba Palace in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN / Getty Images.