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Qatar crisis, the war on terror and regional turmoil

The Hamas connection affected Doha’s foreign policy, making it a great source of irritation for Gulf countries

Gulf News

If you turn the Qatar crisis on its head, you will find that it is couched in the continuing global war on terror. Since Islamist groups are linked to terrorism, Doha’s snapping of ties with Hamas became one of the preconditions that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt listed as crucial to restoring relations with the gas-rich country.

Hamas — a Palestinian resistance organisation, whose political headquarters has been in Qatar since 2012 — is now under the spotlight in the war on terror that came in the wake of the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC, and manifested in the war on Afghanistan, and the US-led war on Iraq and its protracted military occupation of that country than ran up to 2011.

But the war on terror continued at least until 2013 with the rise of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the global anti-terror campaign that ensued, led by the United States and its allies in the region.

Today Hamas is clubbed with Islamist terror groups that include Al Qaida, Hezbollah, Al Houthis, the Taliban, as well as several others.

The war on terror received a boost in May with the visit of US President Donald Trump to Riyadh, where he met many leaders in the region and the Islamic world to reiterate America’s commitment to fighting terrorism, and by implication, these groups. The Saudi-led coalition fighting Al Houthis in Yemen since 2015 to restore the country’s legitimate government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi is essentially part of the war on terrorism that is trying to destabilise the region.

A foreign policy of contradictions

Qatar’s actions have been puzzling. A traditionally conservative state that is part of the anti-terror war, it has been part of the sorties against Daesh and Al Qaida strongholds in Syria, in Yemen, and has provided logistics for the US in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and other subversive elements through its Al Udaid Airbase, where the Americans have stationed 10,000 soldiers.

It has become clear that Qatar has sought to follow a multilateral foreign policy to the detriment of its neighbours. Whilst being part of the anti-terror campaign, it sought to pander to different interest groups — with Hamas being one of them — in a game of complex political brinkmanship and posturing.

By hosting the Hamas leadership since 2012, when it retreated from Damascus in the wake of the Syrian government clampdown in 2011, Qatar sought to increase its influence on the Palestinian group. The Hamas connection affected Qatar’s foreign policy which has become, to put it mildly, a great source of irritation to other Gulf countries.

“It has become clear that Qatar has sought to follow a multilateral foreign policy to the detriment of its neighbours.”
-Marwan Asmar
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Iran, a deadly foe and nemesis of Gulf Arab states, entered an increasingly volatile environment seeking to stretch its wings as a regional power, following the nuclear deal reached with western countries in early 2016 that upset the balance of power in the Middle East.

Another source of worry

Hamas’ relations with Iran have been strong, despite hiccups. It thus became another source of worry for Gulf countries and tensions escalated.

Gulf Arab countries are upset at Iranian meddling and interventions in many of the hotspots in the region — Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to name a few — as such interference also undermines the war against Al Qaida and Daesh. In Syria, for instance, Iran and its unlikely ally, Russia, have gone to great lengths to prop up the Baathist regime there, openly supplying weapons to maintain the crackdown on the opposition while turning a blind eye to other terror groups depending on the political balance of power.

Iran has also been supporting outfits and militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and its extension in Syria besides the regime, and Al Houthis and their power grab in Yemen. Bahrain has cited Iran’s meddling in its internal affairs and similarly, Saudi Arabia has pointed to Tehran’s hand in stirring up trouble in its eastern province.

This is the context in which the three GCC countries and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Some of the fallout has been immediate. Hamas withdrew its leadership base from Qatar. Doha also sought to align Turkey, which swiftly threw in its lot with Qatar in this dispute.

Nobody is quite sure what will happen now, but many fear the worst if the crisis in the Gulf continues. The last dispute between the same Gulf countries and Qatar in 2014 lasted for nine months. The Kuwaitis, who have been active diplomatically since the start of the dispute, are still hoping to make headway.

The GCC states expect a deal that includes a “monitoring mechanism” to ensure that Qatar sticks to its word, and that includes cutting its ties with the Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in addition to measures to stop funding terror groups and the downgrading of its relations with Iran.

The wheels of diplomacy are turning, but very slowly.

Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.

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