Max Blumenthal of Alternet’s Grayzone Project says President Donald Trump’s backing of the Saudi Arabian campaign against Qatar could be the “pilot program” for a wider regional agenda of U.S.-backed Saudi hegemony
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Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Donald Trump is taking credit for the rift between Qatar and its Arab neighbors. Saudi Arabia is leading the group that has set off a diplomatic crisis by cutting all ties to the Qatari government. On Twitter, Trump tied that move to his recent trip to Saudi Arabia. He suggested isolating Qatar could mean “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.” The Gulf states say the Qatari government is supporting terrorist groups and meddling in their internal affairs, but few believe that’s the actual cause. Some see a power struggle with Saudi Arabia taking aim at Qatar’s outsized role on the world stage. Then there is Iran, which Qatar has friendly ties to. Now, the Financial Times reports a $1 billion ransom payment to both Iranian and al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria helped trigger the Gulf states’ decision. To help make sense of all this, I spoke earlier to Max Blumenthal, award-winning author, journalist, and senior editor for Alternet’s Grayzone Project. Welcome, Max. Max Blumenthal: Good to be on with you. Aaron Maté: Thanks for joining us. A lot to discuss here. Let’s start with President Trump’s tweets suggesting that he gave the green light for this rift with Qatar. What do you make of it? Max Blumenthal: There’s a lot of truth behind it. The rift with Qatar, it’s really a campaign against Qatar led by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and it was triggered by Trump’s visit to Riyadh last week as part of his tolerance tour where he called for an Arab NATO, which really shows how he views the region, the Middle East, in a sectarian lens, the same way Saudi Arabia does, and demanded Sunni unity against Iran and its allies in the region. So Qatar wasn’t seen as on board, and the Saudis wanted to go after Doha. Trump has not just claimed credit for what could potentially be a really catastrophic escalation in hostilities within the Persian Gulf, but he has ratified the extremely aggressive posture of Saudi Arabia with this tweet. I don’t know if Trump is reflecting some of the discussions in his National Security Council. It does seems like the Bannon faction of the Trump administration, the supposedly America First faction, and the Kushner faction, the more internationalist, interventionist faction that’s pro-Israel and very favorable to Saudi Arabia, are actually aligned on this issue of hostility to Qatar. Because for the Bannon faction, they get to push the Muslim Brotherhood ban again, which they’d been wanting, and which is something that the UAE desperately wants. And Saudi Arabia, of course, wants it because the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is one of Qatar’s main proxies, and in the Gaza Strip, their cousins in Hamas. Then the Kushner faction gets the isolation, if not the total elimination, of the one force in the Persian Gulf, Qatar, which hasn’t been on board with the Israeli-Saudi de facto alliance. So this is good for Israel in many ways. Israel’s come out openly along with Trump and supported what Saudi and UAE are doing to Qatar. Trump, by doing this, however, has really done serious damage to what I think the Pentagon and the State Department are attempting to do to quell tensions. The Pentagon and the military has not stepped away from Qatar one bit. The CENTCOM has a forward command station inside Qatar, as well as there’s an Air Force base. They do not want to give these up. So Trump is seriously complicating American interests in the region by kind of letting the cat out of the bag. Aaron Maté: Yeah, Max, the one thing I don’t get what you said there is that, how could Qatar not be on board with Trump’s Arab NATO when it does host that forward base of US forces? Max Blumenthal: I think Qatar understands, especially as a smaller country but one that produces an enormous GDP, has the highest per capita income of any country in the region, that they can punch above their weight if they don’t do exactly what the US wants, and if they embrace, excuse me, a policy of what you could call strategic hedging. So Qatar kind of is friends with everyone. They maintain relations with Iran. They are funding the Muslim Brotherhood. They’re welcoming dissidents from Egypt, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood, but there are secular dissidents from Egypt being hosted inside Qatar. And in Syria, what they’ve done is support groups that are actually more extreme than the proxies that even Saudi Arabia has directly supported. We’re talking about direct overt support. So here we’re talking about Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda faction, which Saudi Arabia has supported Jaysh al-Islam, which doesn’t have this international jihadist tendency. The reason they do all that is to project their influence wherever they can and to suppress opposition because if they’re paying all these different forces off, and they maintain a relationship with Iran, they’re not going to be opposed. That makes it harder for Saudi Arabia to get them on board with Sunni Arab NATO, and they’re seen as sort of a bad player right now, especially with the new king and crown prince in Saudi Arabia who want to take an aggressive position to Iran that’s sort of unprecedented. No relations with Iran, just total hostility. So that’s come to a head this week with the aerial and land blockade of Qatar, which I really … It’s kind of shocked me. I think if it weren’t for the US military installations there, and were the US military and the State Department, the diplomats not standing by Qatar, you can imagine them being overrun by the Saudi military much as Kuwait was overrun by Saddam Hussein’s military. Aaron Maté: Yeah, Max. On that point, there has been talk in newspapers in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, newspapers that have ties to the governments there, that the goal here is regime change. Let me ask you about the development today from the Financial Times, which talked about this hostage deal that Qatar was involved in, and on the point that you mentioned about Qatar playing both sides, Qatar paying a massive ransom to forces tied to both al-Qaeda in Syria but also to Iran. Can you explain what happened there? Max Blumenthal: We don’t need to look at newspapers to know that the goal is regime change. Salman Al-Ansari, who is the head of the Saudi lobby in Washington, who speaks for the absolutely monarchy, he has said openly, he said last week in a tweet that the goal is regime change, that Doha will meet the same fate as Mohamed Morsi, the deposed and imprisoned leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. That’s kind of shocking. One of the trigger points for Saudi hostilities against Qatar was discussed in the Financial Times by Erika Solomon. I think she laid it out pretty well, but it’s been sort of well-known for a while. In 2015, a party of about 26 Qatari royals was kidnapped. They were a hunting party in Iraq. The kidnapping was a sort of clever device by Iran and the Qataris to carry out a series of diplomatic moves. First of all, Qatar agreed to a $700 million payment to Kata’ib al-Hezbollah, the Shia militia linked to the Iranian government that carried out the kidnapping. At the same time, they paid $80 million to Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist militia inside Syria dedicated to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad and hostile to Iran. And 120 million more to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. So what’s going on here? Why did they pay both sides? Well, this is consistent with their policy of strategic hedging. But it also was part of Qatar trying to exert its diplomatic muscle because it allowed for the evacuation of two Shia towns under siege by Sunni militias in Syria and two Sunni towns, which were opposition towns under siege by the Syrian government. So the payment took place under the cover of this evacuation deal of these four towns. When Saudi Arabia found out about it, they were furious because $700 million went through the Iranian government from Qatar. That’s a massive cash infusion that actually empowered the Syrian government. The reason they had to kind of pay off the jihadists and Salafist militias as opposed to Assad is to say, “Look, you guys get some, too.” So it actually wound up escalating the conflict. It demonstrated to Saudi Arabia that Qatar was just not on board with Sunni NATO, with opposing Iran at all costs and ramping up hostility. So I think this came to a head, I think, a week ago or so when Qatari state media contained a report that showed the Emir stating his refusal to break off relations with Iran. Qatar said this was hacked, but it could have been very well been something that the Emir said. In any case, the media war led to a political war, and now we stand on the brink of a hot war. Aaron Maté: Max, that agreement in Syria on evacuations from four towns that you mentioned, the Saudi Arabian opposition to that would suggest that they don’t want to tolerate any kind of deal with the Syrian regime, even one that reduces violence. Max Blumenthal: Well, the Qataris have also said the same thing, and they’ve said they want to fund the insurgency into eternity even if the US doesn’t fund it. So it’s unclear to me. The Saudis are in charge of the official opposition and talks in Astana right now between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government. So it’s unclear to me that Qatar has an agenda in Syria that’s entirely different. What they’re trying to do, simply, is punch above their weight. That’s why Al Jazeera exists. Al Jazeera is every bit as much a reflection of Qatari soft power as RT is of Russian soft power, if not more so. I noticed recently you also have to take into consideration besides Iran being an issue and the Muslim Brotherhood, there’s Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would love to see Hamas removed, and that’s where they dovetail with Israel’s agenda. I noticed in the past week for the first time in a while, I was getting called in by Al Jazeera to do interviews about Gaza. They finally care about Gaza again, and that’s because they’re trying to hold onto one of their strategic bulwarks there. So there are a lot of factors at play here. Short of actual regime change in Qatar, a Saudi-UAE coalition is going to try to neuter Qatar as much as possible and just sever one proxy after another until it folds into the dominant influence of Saudi Arabia, into the Saudi sphere. Aaron Maté: On that point of the Saudi sphere, I’m wondering if you could comment on the Saudi accusation against Qatar during this rift, that part of the reason they’re taking this action is because of Qatari support for extremism. I want to read you a quote also from the Financial Times. This was in a piece last year, and it says after the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to a lightening ISIS offensive in 2014, even the late Prince Saud Al Faisal, the respected Saudi foreign minister remonstrated with John Kerry, US Secretary of State, that “Daesh is our response to your support for the Dawa,” the Tehran-aligned Shia Islamist ruling party of Iraq. The Saudi foreign minister saying that ISIS is “our response.” Max Blumenthal: Yeah. That was a pretty revealing statement overheard by some Arab diplomats, I think, back in 2012 when that prince was still alive. But you have to look at the composition of ISIS. 19 out of the 19 Shia clerics in the Islamic State in Syria come from Saudi Arabia. Hillary Clinton in her e-mails identified Saudi Arabia and Qatar both as sponsors of ISIS. I would say you could make the argument that the US has indirectly sponsored it as well by sending weapons to Salafist rebels who opened up space for ISIS to operate. Saudi Arabia is not only directly funding proxy groups, it’s the emanation of the Wahhabi ideology from the Saudi orb of extremism that’s causing the most havoc. I can give you a perfect example. Look at the London attacks, the stabbings in London. One of the stabbers admitted to being radicalized by a hate preacher who’s actually based here in Dearborn, Michigan named Ahmad Jubril. But he’s no product of the United States. He was raised and educated and trained in Wahhabi religious academies in Medina, Saudi Arabia just as his father was. The main cleric who is the most influential cleric in the Syrian armed opposition, who has raised millions of dollars for the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda, Abdullah Muhaysini, also imported from Saudi Arabia. He was basically parachuted into Syria by the Saudis. His father Muhammad Muhaysini is a hate preacher who calls for genocide against Shia civilians, Christians, and Jews in the heart of Mecca. So this is the real issue about Saudi Arabia, is the funding and exportation of Wahhabi ideology. For them to accuse Qatar, which is definitely supporting jihadists and Salafi proxy groups, of funding terror is like Anthony Weiner accusing someone of lewd online behavior. Aaron Maté: Max, just on this point of Saudi funding of extremism, just so people know that this is not just coming from critics of the Saudi regime, it’s also coming from allies. I want to play a clip that I don’t think has gotten nearly enough attention. This is Joe Biden when he was vice president speaking in 2014. Joe Biden: Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region are our largest problem in Syria. The Turks, we’re great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdoğan, which I just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, et cetera. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world. Aaron Maté: That’s Joe Biden speaking in 2014. He later, Max, went on the sort of apology tour for those remarks. Max Blumenthal: Yeah, Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag, but it’s what everybody already knew. They say sometimes the truth is hidden on the front page of The New York Times. Well, the truth reported on the front page of The New York Times is that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were funding jihadists and Salafist groups inside Syria. Extremist Sunni groups, which were not only dedicated to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad but to also establishing an Islamic state that was an exclusively Sunni Islamic state inside Syria where religious minorities would be ethnically cleansed. That was no secret. These were the groups that captured east Aleppo, and it was amazing to watch US media and elements on the left demand solidarity with the rebels in east Aleppo when they shared the same ideology as the Islamic State in Raqqa on so many levels. They had seized eastern Aleppo by force. So Biden is forced to go to Turkey, to go to Saudi Arabia, and to prostrate himself and apologize. Interestingly, at the end of Biden’s comments, he claims that the Saudis had come to the Lord, and the Turkish government had come to the Lord, and they had seen the light, and that they had stopped sending weapons into the rebels. This was completely false because a year later, the rebels went on to capture Idlib, which is now the global base of al-Qaeda, and it’s borders are actually controlled by the Turkish government as we saw from Jenan Moussa’s documentary inside Idlib for the UAE-based Akhbar outlet. So the weapons continued to flow in, not only from these governments but from private donors in Riyadh and Kuwait City and Doha and elsewhere, and they continue to do so today. What has the US government done? The US government continues to support rebels in Syria, and we saw an incident, I think, two weeks ago in Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border where inside one of these deconfliction zones, the US attacked a Shia militia that was approaching a group of rebels that it was training. Who are these rebels? What do they want? It doesn’t seem like they want freedom and democracy. Why are we continuing to train them? Aaron Maté: Max, finally, you mentioned the London terror attack and the connection there to Wahhabism. Since the British elections are just two days away, let me play for you a clip recently of Jeremy Corbyn tying foreign policy to attacks at home. Here he is. Jeremy Corbyn: Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed out the connections between wars that we’ve been involved in or supported and fought in in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home. Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people, we must be honest about what threatens our security. Aaron Maté: That’s Jeremy Corbyn. He was speaking before the London terror attack but after the Manchester bombing. Max, after the Manchester bombing, you wrote a piece pretty quickly for Alternet on the connection between the Manchester bomber and foreign intervention in Libya, and the Manchester bomber actually went there and trained and fought there. I’m wondering if you can comment on what Corbyn is saying here and whether words like that are being understood and discussed on a comparable level here in the US in terms of our media and political culture, drawing the connection between our foreign policies and security at home. Max Blumenthal: We’re not facing the immediate and intimate effects of our foreign policy in the Middle East the same way that Europeans are, that Western Europe is. So Corbyn’s address is much more urgent, and it fell on fertile soil. It was part of his surge in the polls, which has led him to basically pull even with Theresa May, which has stunned a lot of political observers, even within the Labor Party. He’s being rewarded for telling the truth about the failed War on Terror and how the British national security state, which has collaborated and funded extremist Islamist proxy in the Middle East, has placed the national security of British citizens in danger in the name of empire. People in the UK get that. Corbyn gave a subsequent address where he pointed the finger directly at Saudi Arabia for the recent attacks and the stabbing attacks in London. As I pointed out, there is a pretty clear connection to the ideology emanating out of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clergy. So Corbyn isn’t afraid to tell the truth. Theresa May is very, very frightened of this narrative, and it’s because she’s forged a very close bond with Saudi Arabia. In fact, when she supported Trump’s attack on the Syrian government, his cruise missile strike attack, she announced her support from inside Riyadh where she was arranging more arms deals and more economic deals with her friends in Saudi Arabia. This is what prompted the governing conservative party to suppress a report which was initiated by the Liberal Democrats inside Parliament of Saudi funding of jihadist elements inside the UK. In other words, Saudi Arabia is funding and providing support for elements inside the UK, which place British citizens’ lives in danger, and also will lead to a crackdown on civil liberties. The Tory Party has prevented that report from being completed, and they have suppressed its findings because, in the words of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentarian who initiated it, it’s very sensitive. It’s very sensitive. For geopolitical reasons, it’s not very sensitive. What’s very sensitive is that more people could get killed if this special relationship continues, and when people get killed, we see an amplification of Islamophobia, and we see crackdowns on civil liberties. So people on the left need to start speaking up about this relationship and about the imperial roots of it and the imperial roots of Islamophobia. We can’t just address the problem’s symptoms, we have to address the cause, and cause starts straight in Saudi Arabia. Aaron Maté: Max, finally, just a quick question. Going back to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, given that the Trump administration appears now willing to abandon Qatar despite having a military base there, your thoughts on what that portends for Saudi Arabia’s role in the world and what they support. Max Blumenthal: It’s not clear to me that the US will abandon Qatar. I spoke to people at Al Jazeera who, they’re not in management, but they know what’s going on in management, and they’re not quite ready to fold. They don’t see doomsday on the horizon. So it’s unclear what’s going to happen. Right now, people in Qatar are stocking up on groceries, and that’s because food supplies come through Saudi Arabia. But this could push Qatar into the Iranian orbit. They could turn to Iran for food supplies, and Iran has openly stated that they’re willing to help. That would be an interesting development. Iran could apply conditions and say, “Hey, can you stop funding the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria in exchange for this?” So anything could happen. The US military shows no sign of pulling out of Qatar right now. If Saudi Arabia is able to achieve its goals, Qatar was just a pilot program for a wider regional agenda, Saudi hegemony across the region, and the next target in line is Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian ally, which is based in southern Lebanon, in southern Beirut. The spear point of the attack on Hezbollah will be Israel, but it will be done with Saudi and UAE backing. So this coalition that’s being assembled is extremely dangerous. As I said, it’s aimed at nothing less than regional hegemony for Saudi Arabia. Finally, we also have to consider the role that Saudi Arabia played in crushing the Arab Spring, in just drowning out the cosmopolitan reformist demands of the young people who drove the Arab Spring with this sectarian narrative, just to understand how dangerous Saudi Arabia is and what a counter-revolutionary role it’s played in the region. Aaron Maté: Max Blumenthal, award-winning author, journalist, senior editor for Alternet’s Grayzone Project. Max, thank you. Max Blumenthal: Thanks for having me. Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.