TEHRAN, Feb. 6 (Press Shia) – The US and Qatar have had longstanding economic and political ties since the 1970s. Rarely, if ever, has any domestic, regional, or international development fundamentally changed or even undermined this valued and cooperative relationship.
On January 30, 2018, US Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, alongside their Qatari counterparts, remarked in favor of further cooperation between the two countries at the opening session of the inaugural US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue at the State Department. How should one gauge the significance of this initiative? This event raises a question: Is embarking on a new strategic talk between the two countries aimed at repairing the rift within the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC)? Or is this new foreign policy directed at rolling back the resurgent regional powers of Iran and Turkey given the current conflict in Syria?
Looking at the bigger picture, it is worth noting that since the fractures within the [P]GCC have concrete geopolitical and economic—and to a lesser extent, ideological—roots, it is highly unlikely that such divisions will be overcome any time soon. I would make the case that the United States is neither willing nor capable of reconciling differences between and/or among the [P]GCC states. The US-Qatar strategic dialogue, therefor, has one central goal: to contain the regional influence of Iran and Turkey.
The dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has intensified divisions within the [P]GCC, but it also has benefited countries such as Turkey and Iran, whose economic ties with Qatar have dramatically deepened. The dispute has placed Qatar in a much stronger position to outlast the political ambitions of the three other Persian Gulf states (the United Arab States, Kuwait, and Bahrain) that have followed the Saudis’ lead to punish Qatar for its unorthodox support for the Arab Spring uprisings and their pragmatic economic and political relationship with Iran. Similarly, Qatar’s moves in the region to protect migrant workers’ rights, as well as serving as a mediators in some key regional conflicts (Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Palestine, to mention only a few), have clearly out-staged Riyadh’s status-quo and counterrevolutionary proclivities. Meanwhile, the Al-Udeid Air Base in Doha, the region’s largest US air base and home to 11,000 US personnel, has given Qatar a clear advantage in its bargaining position vis-à-vis the other [P]GCC member states. Several factors may account for the US attempts at establishing an annual strategic dialogue with Qatar.
First and foremost, Iran’s burgeoning status as a regional power has been strengthened by the widening divisions within the [P]GCC. Doha’s increased commercial and political ties with Tehran enhanced Iranian stature and influence, both domestically and regionally.
Secondly, Turkey has benefited even more from the [P]GCC rift and its deepening ties with Qatar. This has occurred within the context of Turkey’s expansive military role in Syria, the latest example of which, Operation Olive Branch, has witnessed the unleashing of Turkish military might against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a faction that has long been at war with Ankara over its demands to Kurdish self-rule. This helps explain why Turkey has always prioritized fighting against the Kurds above defeating ISIS.
The recent Turkish military intervention in Afrin, northern Syria, apparently as part of an agreement reached with Russia, have opened a new front in Syria’s lingering civil war and have further intensified existing tensions between Ankara and Washington. With an eye toward his country’s presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, Erdogan is keenly aware that a tough stance in Syria and strong support for Qatar are likely to bolster his electoral appeal.
Finally, Qatar’s cooperation with the United States and other regional states to counter terrorist operations carried out by ISIS and Al-Qaeda agents is crucial to present and future counterterrorism programs in place by the United States and its allies. Qatar’s pivotal role in containing such threats has increasingly gained traction in Washington and throughout Europe. Without denying the importance of the anti-terrorism campaign, one should not lose sight of the fact that the US-Qatar strategic dialogue is essentially designed to ratchet up US pressure on Doha to align its foreign policy with that of Washington, while also keeping both Tehran and Ankara at bay. Strategic dialogues have almost always exceeded short-term transactional deals, and this one is no different.