How Far Will US & Saudis Go to Remake the Middle East?
Junaid Ahmad of the Center for Global Dialogue says the U.S.-backed Gulf campaign against Qatar is part of a broader strategy to crush the remnants of the Arab Spring and spark a confrontation with Iran
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Qatar is defiant in the face of a campaign against it by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Speaking to Al Jazeera, the Qatari Foreign Minister said the effort to isolate it threatens the future of Gulf cooperation.
Mohammed A.: That kind of a sanction we can sustain forever. We can assure the supplies forever. Our country, thanks God hamdullah, is blessed by resources, is blessed by funds. We have investments everywhere in the world. There is really an unknown future from our side to the GCC and how this organization can operate effectively.
Aaron Maté: As Qatar stands its ground, President Trump could be backing down. Trump initially took credit for the Gulf states’ anti-Qatar move, but he now says he wants to help resolve the dispute. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates led the effort to cut all ties to Qatar. They claim it’s about Qatari support of militant and foreign meddling. But since these states do that, too, it might just be that Saudi Arabia and its partners want Qatar to follow their lead.
To discuss all this, I spoke earlier to Junaid Ahmad, Director of the Center for Global Dialogue and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. He’s also a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Islamophobia and Ethnic Studies Graduate Center. Junaid, welcome.
Junaid Ahmad: Good to be with you.
Aaron Maté: Thank you for joining us. This rift or this campaign against Qatar involves mainly the Gulf states that launched it, but there are many players here that this rift touches including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. What’s your assessment of what’s behind this?
Junaid Ahmad: I think that the larger issue is that, unfortunately, that has remained with many administrations since the Bush, Jr. administration, and that is the question of Iran. As the neo-cons during the Bush, Jr. administration liked to put it, real men go to Tehran. Unfortunately, this has persisted with us, and it seems like there was more than just symbolism in Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia as his first international visit in which basically it was a campaign to mobilize regional allies led by Saudi Arabia in confronting Iran, isolating it, and potentially eventually militarily targeting it.
Aaron Maté: Can you explain why targeting Qatar or putting pressure on Qatar would be really a knock against Iran?
Junaid Ahmad: Right. I think that this is where it becomes interesting because Qatar obviously is a member of the GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council, but Qatar has not been so obedient and reliable all the time in, for example, isolating Iran or for that matter in other movements in the region that the Saudis and the UAE. It should be clear to the listeners that the two countries that want to dictate the terms of the Gulf are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They are opposed to many of these oppositional movements in the region right now, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hamas in the occupied territories, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So the problem that they have had with Qatar is not simply on the question of Iran but the fact that Iran, sorry, Qatar has to some extent also maintained relationships with all of these other groups, particularly with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So all of these have been deeply irritating facts for the Saudis and the Emiratis in the UAE. Of course, the Qataris have projected their relationship with these groups.
There’s often sympathy for the opinion of what is often called the Arab street, which is a very problematic term, but simply representing what the people of the region want, which is kind of an opposition to the hegemony, the domination of outside powers, of the dictatorships, so on and so forth, the spirit of what was the Arab Spring.
So Al Jazeera, the cable network coming from Qatar, voiced that to some extent, at some period at least. All of this has been a complete abomination, completely undesirable from the perspective of the Saudis and the folks in the UAE.
Aaron Maté: In that context, then, this isn’t just a move to target Iran. It’s also an attempt by the Saudis and the Emiratis to finish off the job of crushing the Arab Spring.
Junaid Ahmad: Yeah, absolutely. I think that it’s an issue of finishing off the Arab Spring, but it’s also taking it to the next level, and the next level is the issue of Iran. Because I think in some ways, the Saudis and the UAE and the United States, which is the ultimate mafia Don supporting all of these regional players, were able to effectively finish that off by the intervention in Libya. It was during that intervention when they were able to convince the Qataris as well to some extent that, “Look. Hey, guys. We all need to really unite on this one since these uprisings could very quickly spread to the Gulf Region itself.” So then you also saw a shift in the way that Qatar in its public statements in Al Jazeera, so on and so forth, but I think that-
Aaron Maté: No, wait a second. Wait a second. Didn’t Qatar play an instrumental role in backing the rebels in Libya?
Junaid Ahmad: Yeah, absolutely. Right. But I think that the qualitative nature of the Arab Spring and the desires of the Arab masses shifted when it went from Tunisia to then Cairo in Egypt and then to Libya. By the time it got to Libya, it was very much co-opted by these reactionary forces in the Gulf — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, et cetera — as well as the United States. Of course, the Libyan intervention was also a NATO intervention, and then, you want, can say the same by extension in Syria afterwards.
Aaron Maté: Syria in the respect that initially what you had was a largely non-violent uprising against the dictator was then sort of co-opted by outside powers funding jihadist groups and bringing in foreign fighters.
Junaid Ahmad: Absolutely. Right. So the very nature of the Arab uprisings, the character of it qualitatively shifted after the uprisings in Tunisia, in Egypt, and so on. By the time it got to Libya, I think the autocratic regimes of the Gulf, as well as Western NATO powers understood that they needed to co-opt these movements and intervene directly within them to support their forces, their proxies and to establish their client regimes in these places. Of course, these places are in a mess whether it’s Libya or Syria in front of us, not to speak of Iraq.
Aaron Maté: Let’s talk about Israel for a second.
Junaid Ahmad: Sure.
Aaron Maté: This is a move that could presumably benefit Israel in that Qatar has ties to Hamas, and now in the wake of this pressure on Qatar, it said that some Hamas officials are being pressured to leave Qatar, go elsewhere to Turkey and Lebanon.
Junaid Ahmad: Yeah.
Aaron Maté: Can you talk about how isolating Qatar and putting the pressure on them could impact Israel and its goals in the region?
Junaid Ahmad: Yeah. I think the Israelis are also very much egging on the Saudis to engage in what they’ve been doing now in trying to isolate Qatar precisely because of Qatar’s relationship with the Hamas and the Hamas leadership, which they have hosted in Doha for a number of years. Now, again, the Qataris have tried to play all sides in the regional set up, and just about a week and a half ago, they began to expel some of the leadership of Hamas from Qatar in order to mollify and placate these fears, these anxieties, the anger, the wrath of the Saudis, of the Israelis, and so on and so forth. But at this point, it seems a little too little too late.
But it’s absolutely the case that the Israelis are also are incredibly supportive right now. They are seeing eye to eye with the Saudis in the project to get Qatar to fully comply and be obedient to their aim of not only destroying Hamas but eventually Hezbollah as well in Lebanon.
Aaron Maté: Meanwhile, in the Emirates, you have Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security official known as a strongman, who has a following inside the occupied territories. He lives in the Emirates, and he certainly stands to benefit from Hamas being weakened and perhaps Abbas being weakened as well.
Junaid Ahmad: Absolutely. These individuals stand to benefit personally speaking, but I don’t think that they will benefit in any meaningful way since they are so discredited within their own populations themselves. The fundamental error and fallacy in this entire approach is that there is a desire to continue a project of installing these deeply unpopular, autocratic, illegitimate rulers, regimes throughout the Arab world thinking that they will last, but these are cosmetic attempts to try to placate and pacify the Arab populations. But people like Dahlan and Abbas himself, deeply discredited individuals, seen more as subservient to the interests and working on behalf of the Israelis to pacify the Palestinian population rather than for the interest of the Palestinians themselves.
Aaron Maté: Exactly. That’s why I raised Dahlan as an issue because if weakening Qatar leads to weakening Hamas, that then bodes well for someone from the outside like Dahlan who could be imposed in theory by a group like the Emirates. Let’s talk about Syria-
Junaid Ahmad: But I was just going to say, but we know how that model always working, trying to parachute in these individuals from outside in the Arab world whether it was in Afghanistan with Karzai or with the characters that the US tried to bring in in Iraq. That type of parachuting in these individuals more loved in the West than they are by their own populations hasn’t seemed to have worked too well so far.
Aaron Maté: It hasn’t worked too well, but the powers that do it don’t seem to have learned that lesson.
Junaid Ahmad: Right. Right.
Aaron Maté: On that point, let’s go to Syria, which you mentioned earlier. Earlier this week, I spoke to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson who served as the Chief of Staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He revealed something that was quite interesting. He said that sources that he’s close to had told him that Defense Secretary James Mattis had loosened the rules of engagement for US forces and US-backed forces inside Syria to confront Iranian-backed forces. This is what he said.
Lawrence W.: What they’re really after is Iran. I have it on pretty good authority that Secretary Mattis has already directed our forces in Syria to change their rules of engagement in such a way that allows them to go after directly what is called in the direction the Iranian militia, that is those Iranians inside Syria assisting the Assad regime, and its Hezbollah auxiliaries. We feel like an increase in force in the United States taking a very formidable, as opposed to a rather neutral, military position in Syria might be advantageous to us, and it might eventually bring about a change of regime in Tehran, which after all, has been the objective of the Republican Party for years now.
Aaron Maté: That’s Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson speaking to us on Monday. On Tuesday, the day after that interview, US forces bombed an Iranian militia in Syria for, I believe, the third time, suggesting perhaps that the proxy war is ramping up and that Wilkerson’s words were correct, Junaid.
Junaid Ahmad: Absolutely. I think that this is becoming clear, and I think it’s part of the broader leeway, flexibility authorization that President Trump has given the US military to intervene in Syria and elsewhere as recklessly as it wants with little regard to civilian casualties. But specifically on the point of going after elements related to Iran and Hezbollah, I think this is key and this is central. The obsession with Iran is being manifested here, and I think that it’s all meant to send this message.
So I think he’s absolutely right. I think that not only do we see this dangerously flexible policy of employing heavy military prowess wherever the US want to but also targeting these forces, which seem to be close to Iran or the Iranian forces themselves within Syria. Again, not to what needs to be done, which is try to bring about some type of political resolution but to, in fact, escalate the conflict and to make it very, very clear to Iran that we want to target you.
Aaron Maté: How do you think this plays out? President Trump on his Twitter account basically announced that he had given the green light for this campaign against Qatar. Do you think that he’s going to follow through on that, especially given the fact that Qatar hosts this major US military base? What do you think Qatar’s going to do? Do they going to back down-
Junaid Ahmad: No.
Aaron Maté: On anything or do they hold their ground?
Junaid Ahmad: This is the interesting question. Initially, of course, he was incredibly enthusiastic on his famous tweets in supporting the Saudi move as the first step in eliminating the sources of terrorism in the region because Qatar, of course, is in their eyes a main supporter of ISIS and so on. Later on, I think probably some of the generals in the Pentagon reminded him that we do have 11,000 troops stations in Qatar and a large Air Force base there is the forward operations base for wars in Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. So I think later on, when he was reminded of that, he then said, “Well, if Qatar essentially complies with what the Saudis are demanding, then we can continue working with them.” I think that this is what it’s about.
Right now, an ultimatum is being given to Qatar via the Saudis but really as part of this broader US-Saudi-Israeli-UAE nexus that you sever all of these links not just with the Iranians, with which the Qataris have economic and energy deals and so on, but also with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is another huge irritant for the UAE and for the Saudis, which hate the Brotherhood in Egypt and are deeply allied with the military dictatorship of el-Sisi there.
So these demands are being made to the Qataris, and Qatar may be a small country but a wealthy country, but very dependent on importing food supplies. Those food supplies primarily came from Saudi Arabia [crosstalk 00:18:03]-
Aaron Maté: Yeah, 40% I believe.
Junaid Ahmad: Exactly. The only country that it has an actual physical geographical border with. Now in this situation, we do have the Iranians and, interestingly enough, the Turks. The Turkish government has offered not only have food, but the Turkish government immediately summoned a special meeting in Parliament and has vowed to send troops to Qatar in the middle of this crisis.
So these are not insignificant factors in the way this potentially will unfold. So it’s highly unpredictable right now how Qatar will behave, but it is a situation that seems very, I keep going to Bush, but Bush-esque. You’re either with us or you’re against us, and I think that’s the kind of position that Qatar is being placed in.
Aaron Maté: Finally, Junaid, I want to talk a bit more about Iran because it’s so significant right now, and there have been so many critical developments that I want to mention just a few of them. In the past several weeks, first we had Trump going to Saudi Arabia and him and the Gulf allies, and then going on to Israel, and all of them taking aim at Iran with some harsh rhetoric.
Then there was news last week, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported this, that the CIA is setting up a new mission center targeting Iran, naming someone known as the “Dark Prince,” Michael D’Andrea, who was involved in the drone program, to head it. The New York Times quoted some anonymous officials or cited some anonymous officials saying that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is a senior official on the National Security Council, has told other administration officials he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government.
Then, you had the anti-Qatar move. Then, of course, yesterday, we had this attack by ISIS inside Iran. Iran immediately laying blame, at least partially, on Saudi Arabia and the US. Then, President Trump in his response suggesting that Iran had brought that attack upon itself. Finally, later on in that same day, I know this is long-winded, on that same day, the US Senate, including Democrats, voting to begin debate on reimposing sanctions on Iran.
Junaid Ahmad: Right. Like I said at the beginning, supposedly real men go to Tehran, and that’s what it seems like has been going on now during various administrations. But Trump is basically laying it all out very clearly that that is his target. He’s creating crises throughout the world whether it’s in Korea, China, and so on, but it seems like Iran is the focal point right now. Subversion activities within Iran supported by the United States and other groups, other outside actors have been going on for quite a while, groups like the Mojahedin-e Khalq and so on, but-
Aaron Maté: That’s the MEK.
Junaid Ahmad: Yeah, the MEK, exactly.
Aaron Maté: I mentioned this yesterday in another interview, that they have a pretty big lobbying arm in the US-
Junaid Ahmad: Absolutely.
Aaron Maté: Enlisting both Democrats and Republicans who get paid a lot of money to lobby for them.
Junaid Ahmad: Absolutely. My initial hunch was actually that they would have undertaken this type … Which still, we actually really don’t know, but what we do know is that this is probably somehow connected to this larger project by all of these forces surrounding Iran, supported by of course President Trump and the Trump administration to isolate and target it. So whether it’s ISIS, Mojahedin-e Khalq, or whoever it is, they are being supported by outside powers, some very openly so, to undertake these activities. I would go so far as to say to possibly provoke Iran to a situation where a military conflict would become unavoidable.
Aaron Maté: Well, Junaid, I look forward to speaking to you more about this issue as developments unfold. Junaid Ahmad is Director of the Center for Global Dialogue and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Lahore in Pakistan. He is also a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Islamophobia and Ethnic Studies Graduate Center. Junaid, thank you.
Junaid Ahmad: Thanks so much for having me.
Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.