By Simon Assaf
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Middle East spins deeper into crisis

This article is over 6 years, 7 months old
Issue 426

Foreign intervention is pushing the Middle East into a series of wars with no end in sight.

The war in Syria and Iraq is threatening to spill into a war between the Saudis and Iran, Turkey is preparing to crush the restive Kurdish regions, while the prospect of a defeat for ISIS threatens a deeper and bloodier struggle over its old strongholds.

At the heart of these battles are the doomed cities of Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria. The noose is tightening around ISIS, but only after it is driven from Raqqa will the real war for control over eastern Syria and western Iraq begin.

This will pit Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, US backed Kurdish forces, and what passes for the Syrian army with its Russian ally against each other.

Each power is attempting to outflank the other to position itself strategically after ISIS is defeated. This superpower battle over Syria and Iraq is getting dangerously close to triggering a full confrontation between the US and Russia, threatening a wider war.

Russia has effectively drawn a red line for US coalition warplanes west of the Euphrates River, after the US shot down a Syrian jet bombing its allies.

Iran in turn has fired its long-range missiles at Syria as a show of force (five of the six missiles missed), while Russia is now “illuminating” Coalition planes (tracking them on radar as the first step to shooting them down). Everybody is shooting down everybody else’s drones.

Alongside this war for Iraq and Syria there is growing tension across the Persian Gulf that has resulted in a bizarre ostracisation of Qatar, once a key player in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the alliance of oil rich Gulf Arab kingdoms.

The standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in alliance with UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, is another key indication of the pace at which the old certainties are melting away.

Qatar has long been an anomaly among the Gulf states. Despite formally being a Wahhabi Muslim kingdom (as with Saudi Arabia) its rulers have attempted to position the kingdom as a neutral party in the Arab world.

Qatar supports Hamas, the Palestinian resistance organisation, but also has ties with Israel. It was part of the GCC, despite keeping good relations with Iran.

Qatar backed Hizbollah in the 2006 war against Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and some sections of the Syrian insurgency. It is now holding joint military exercises with Turkey in defiance of its former GCC allies.

It is home to the biggest and most important US military base in the Gulf, was part of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, and a key player in the region’s “anti-terrorism” alliance. Yet now it is relying on Iran to ship in food after the UAE and Saudi Arabia cut off all supplies.

Qatar is host to Al-Jazeera, the most open news organisation in the Middle East, as long as it does not criticise the Qatari monarchy. It has long been a thorn in the side of the Arab regimes.

The anger at Qatar means that its citizens are being expelled from other Gulf states, and anyone expressing any sympathy for its plight in the UAE is subject to 15 years in prison. What was once considered one of the most stable alliances, the GCC, is now collapsing.

This chaos is being blamed on the “Trumpisation” of the Middle East — that is the collapse of certainties into chaos and crisis.

On becoming president Trump relinquished control over military matters to commanders on the ground. With complex and shifting alliances across the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields this has turned out to be disastrous.

US commanders ordered a Syrian jet to be shot out of the sky without consulting political leaders in Washington — a move that has vastly upped the military tension with Russia.

And in another bizarre development the US State Department and the Pentagon appear to be contradicting the White House over its Middle East strategy, or lack of it.

Trump’s decision to give Saudi Arabia the green light in order to isolate Qatar has rattled sections of the US administration.

The US has been bombarding Raqqa with white phosphorous; sectarian Shia death squads are butchering young Sunni men they capture in Mosul; Yemen is in the grip of hunger and a terrible cholera epidemic; Arabs are accusing Kurds of ethnic cleansing; what remains of the Syrian rebels are corralled in the Idlib province waiting to be massacred; Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, is being pounded into dust by Russian and Syrian warplanes; and Mosul has become a giant graveyard.

At every turn foreign intervention has dragged the region into deeper and deeper levels of despair, and right now the prospects look grim.

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