“The situation” – a euphemism for the unrest engendered by the “Arab Spring” – precluded last year’s session of the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain. This year, the three-day gathering of assorted Gulf and other invited world leaders at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Dec. 7-9 was heavily overshadowed by two running events – the Syrian civil war and the Israel-Arab conflict.
In a speech he delivered to the forum on Dec. 8, William Burns, US Deputy Secretary of State, stressed that although the logical focus “pivots” in other directions… the United States “cannot afford to neglect what’s at stake in the Middle East.”
He went on to say that a successful, long-term American strategy in the region is not an “á la carte menu,” and spoke of at least four interconnected elements to American policy:
The first is security and, in particular, meeting the urgent challenges posed by “Iran’s reckless behavior across a wide front “and the related imperative of “accelerating a transition to the new leadership which the Syrian people so deeply deserve.”
The second element underlined by William Burns was “continued support for political openness, democratic reforms and successful post-revolutionary transitions.”
The third sine qua non for political transition or democratic process to succeed is “a sense of economic possibility.” Economic revival in Egypt, he said, is essential to sustained democratic change.
And the fourth, said the US official, was “a re-energized effort to resolve regional conflicts – especially renewing hope for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.” He stressed that the status quo between the Palestinians and Israelis is “unsteady and combustible, and ultimately unsustainable.”
Qatar “attacks” the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict
The fourth point made by the US Deputy Secretary of State figured the next day at another forum and in another speech, the Arab League ministerial meeting in Doha at which the Qatari Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and intelligence chief, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, dropped a surprising proposal.
Apparently out of the blue, Sheikh Hamad said it was time to “rethink” an Arab offer of “normal ties with Israel in return for its pullout from occupied land.” He said the Middle East Quartet efforts were a failure and should be re-evaluated.
The Qatari minister was referring to the decade-old Saudi initiative put forward by King Abdullah, then Crown Prince, for a “comprehensive” Arab peace accord with Israel in return for Israel’s handover of all the Arab lands taken in the 1967 war, including Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and the return of Palestinian (1948) refugees.
Hamad convinced the Arab League ministerial committee to send a delegation to the UN Security Council to negotiate an Israeli withdrawal to pre-June 1967 lines “in light of the UN General Assembly’s vote to admit Palestinian as a non-member state with observer status.”
But then Sheikh Hamad asked – and answered – a loaded question: “Are we ready for war? Personally, I say I am not.”
A pendulum swinging with and against the US
He left an ominous “but” hanging in the air. Where he really stands “personally” on this conflict may be judged, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources, by the Qatari record of the last two years.
In 2011, the emirate was at the forefront of the NATO-Arab military campaign to depose Muammar Qaddafi. He then turned to Syria and threw Qatari support and aid behind the armed revolt against Bashar Assad.
Then, in November 2012, Qatari intelligence was deeply involved in Israel’s Gaza operation and the ceasefire negotiations in Cairo for ending it. At that moment, he stood alongside Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the effort to use the momentum of the Gaza operation to establish a new Sunni Muslim coalition in the Middle East.
Now, on Dec. 9 in Doha, the Qatari minister sounded as though he was ready to plunge the emirate’s considerable diplomatic, financial and intelligence resources into a new endeavor – this one for burying existing peace processes and initiating a new Arab war offensive against Israel.
Hamad’s comments also signaled rejection of the four points Deputy Secretary William Burns underlined at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain.
By the time the US “re-energizes the effort to resolve regional conflicts,” Hamad is clearly contemplating an alternative plan for turning the Sunni Arab alliance founded in Cairo under the American aegis into a dagger for solving the longest-running regional conflict – the Palestinian issue.
The Arab Gulf penchant for Islamist extremists, including al Qaeda
His comments stirred a number of disquieting thoughts among his fellow Arab leaders, some of which they put into the words. But first, our Middle East sources report, they wanted to know if Qatar continues to walk in step with President Barack Obama.
The answer is not a straight yes or no. The Libyan or Syrian pattern may be repeating itself, whereby the US and Qatar started out together and then at some point, the Qataris broke away from their partnership with the Americans and diverted their personal, operational and intelligence resources into channels at odds with US policy goals.
In Libya and now in Syria, the Qataris decided to throw their support behind radical Islamist rebel groups, including those directly affiliated with al Qaeda. In Syria, it’s not just Qatar, but Saudi Arabia and other Gulf powers.
On this score, history is repeating itself: In the second half of the 1980s, the Saudis and Qataris led the Gulf in a US-sponsored effort to organize the Afghan mujahidin into a fighting force for evicting the Red Army from Afghanistan. This force produced a new movement called al Qaeda. The Americans pulled away in 1987 when their purpose was achieved, but the Arab Gulf retained its ties with the Sunni extremists.
In Syria, Al Qaeda has been reinvented as Jabhat al-Nusra, which forms roughly one-tenth of the Syrian rebel movement and whose fighters are fiercer, crueler and better trained and armed by the same patrons as before, notably Qatar.
Repudiating the deals struck with the US after Israel’s Gaza operation
The same dichotomy was evident Tuesday, Dec. 11, when the US State Department designated the Jabhat al-Nusra group fighting with the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime “a foreign terrorist organization” and affiliate of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The group advocates an Islamic state in Syria and is accused by other rebel factions of indiscriminate tactics in the bloody civil war.
Whereas in Marrakesh, the US-sponsored “Friends of Syria recognized the umbrella of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in exile as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people" and Assad was called upon to "stand aside,” in Syria, 29 anti-Assad opposition groups called for mass demonstrations in support of the Qatar-backed al Qaeda affiliate under the slogan "No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra."
In November, the Qataris were solid with the US-Egyptian effort behind the Israeli offensive against Hamas. (See DNW 566 of Nov. 23: The Gaza Campaign was the Brainchild of Intelligence Wizards).
A month later, they are spoiling for action that would repudiate the deals they struck in Cairo for a collaborative alliance between Washington, Doha, Cairo, Ankara and Jerusalem – especially in the case of Syria.
Obama’s Middle East policy in shreds
So what’s the Qatari game?
1. Are they playing a lone hand?
2. Have they formed a bond with Cairo – or even Tehran – behind Washington’s back?
3. Or are they ready to go all the way toward détente with Iran?
The last option may have come forward after Doha caught wind of the bumpy ride the Iranians are giving President Obama in the secret nuclear talks he initiated with Tehran from Dec. 1 at an isolated Geneva lakeside villa in Lausanne.
(See DNW 567 of Nov. 30: Direct US-Iran Talks Dec. 1 – Too Late to Stop a Nuclear-Armed Iran.)
DEBKA-Net-Weekly is not yet in on the secret of which of the three suppositions applies. But it looks as though Obama’s three-pronged Middle East plan has entered choppy waters. He launched it quietly ahead of his Nov. 6 election victory as a major strategic initiative designed for getting the United States ensconced in the Middle East driving seat in time for his inauguration on Jan. 21.
However, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Syria’s Bashar Assad are acting to scuttle it.
(This proposition is developed in detail in separate articles in this issue.)