Diario Judío México - While the US remains dormant to the developments in Africa, with the exception of engaging in counterterrorism operations, such as the recent raid against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, which freed child prisoners, state actors are amplifying their efforts to expand their spheres of influence all over the continent. In a struggle for influence and domination, between Iran, Qatar, and Turkey on the one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain on the other, the former is succeeding. The alliance, despite some tensions over conflicting interest in domination, is for the time being united in countering their anti-Islamist opponents.
Each actor has a role. Qatar is the financier of expanding military basements; Turkey is largely responsible for the ideological investments, such as Islamist schools, and Sunni mosques, strengthening diplomatic ties and looking to build new embassies, such as in Mogadishu, arming Shi’a militia, and spreading Shi’a education. Turkey is focused on militarization, and strengthening its representation abroad, and all actors seek greater access to and control of strategic ports and waterways, which are both routes for trade for the West and Gulf States, and serve as smuggling routes for weapons from Iran into Yemen.
Much has been written why the tensions between Sudan and Egypt and dangerous; how Sudan is being used by Turkey to entrench its presence on the ground, and how other countries are becoming easy fodder for those who are willing to invest the money. However, in order to make use of the detailed analysis of this issue, the governments opposed to the spread of Iranian, Turkish, and Qatari influence through Africa should be raising and answering the following questions:
- What is the likely short-term and long-term effects of such policies, beyond greater flow of weapons and increased potential for regional tensions?
- What can these governments do to break up the poisonous alliance?
- Why has the Gulf State block been losing in terms of investment and appeal to these countries? What can be done to change that, if anything?
- Who are the remaining allies in the region? What can the Gulf State block do to prevent deterioration in relations?
- What are the alternatives to having adversarial navies guarding strategic waterways? What would it take to form a blockade for weapons smugglers?
- Who else is likely to be affected by this turn of events?
- How can the Saudi block engage in existing allies and bring them in to help develop a response?
- How aware is the US government of the ongoing issues? What are the US interests? How can the Saudi block best present the case to the US, and should US be getting involved in resolving this situation on any level?
- Would deescalation of the Gulf Crisis have any serious effect on these geopolitical developments?
- Are there any other unknown countries or continents, where the trifecta is trying to expand its influence?
- How can the Gulf State block gauge the international community’s assistance?
That’s a lot of ground to cover, but some of the issues that these states should take into consideration can be touched on briefly and explored in depth in future publications.
First, in addition to above cited dangers of blockading trade routes, and the ongoing weapons smuggling, the ideological change in the populations and governments of these countries should not underestimated. In addition to Islamist education, there will likely be a cultivated hostility to any country that opposes Turkey and Iran, and certainly Islamism. The battle for control of these countries will likely go beyond winning hearts and minds. In the future, Iran and Turkey in particular, with Qatar’s financial assistance will look to economic return on their expenditures in the form of control over ports, and other de facto ownership of strategic African infrastructure, a strategy that China is already successfully pursuing in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.
If that happens, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar stand to greatly enrich themselves at the expense of their colonies, while also potentially creating standing armies of new recruits for their malevolent causes. Interesting, this business-oriented approach contrasts with Iran’s violent and openly colonialist takeover of the Middle Eastern states. Iran and Turkey have the potential to become successful in Africa; and have already solid ongoing relationships. Moreover, they will likely continue funding terrorism to destabilize some areas, clear the path for their own intervention when the time comes, and to keep US distracted and controversial while they pursue seemingly legitimate paths.
The approach to managing this situation and separating the threesome is four-pronged:
First, challenge Qatar’s financing of these deals. Treat its financing of Islamists as de facto sponsorship of terrorism, force transparency, and make business dealings of any sort difficult and subject to intense scrutiny by relevant international institutions.
Second, exploit existing tensions between Iran and Turkey, driving a wedge between these allies through their religious, cultural, and geopolitical differences and ambitions. That includes encouraging drawn out arguments by proxies over areas of influence, disruption of existing or ongoing deals, flow of disinformation about these actors throughout the communities, and in general, “controlled chaos” – but aimed at these states, rather than at civilians.
Third, counter pernicious influence with heavy investment into skill building and keeping African countries independent, thriving, and open to facts, education, and away from embracing bloodthirsty dictators. Heavier investments into cultural centers, educational programming for the children, funding of entrepreneurial efforts, and joint business ventures may start to counteract the existing destructive effect of the three states.
Fourth, work with regional allies to counteract ideological influence of both radical states with more moderate version of Islam. Morocco, which has already been making inroads in that area, is the perfect candidate for that role. The focus of the Gulf States should be preserving their own geopolitical advantages. They should live the unessential exploits to countries better positioned to handle long-term projects, which require on the ground presence. Development of stronger and warmer relationships with the locals and other governments will make such a development a possibility. TO some extent, Saudi Arabia has already been engaged in this competition with Iran, but has been losing on the ground.
Its version of religious institutions and organizations up until recently has been focused on Wahhabism. Interestingly, although Iran’s Sh’a Islam is no less restrictive and in many ways at least as violent as Wahhabism at its worst, when abroad, Iran manages to project an aura of openness, humanism, and moderation which is deceptive, yet effective in spreading its influence. This may account for at least some of Iran’s success. It’s general experience with multiculturalism, openness of the country itself, and successful lobbying ventures abroad have made it far better suited for such endeavors than Saudi Arabia. Some of these modernization efforts are already taking place in KSA, but overhaul of outreach efforts, a different, less scary image, and genuine interest in and understanding of other cultures will serve these countries well in the long run.
Nevertheless, many of these countries are not just potential victims of Iranian or Turkish control, but potential allies. Rather than getting entangled in endless disputes, the Gulf State block should examine whether it, potentially, has something better to offer that some of the African countries would be willing to buy. Building up stronger relationships with West Africa, and joining the governments in their fights against Iran-backed militias, for instance, would send a strong signal to the world that this problem is just as serious and real as Al Shabaab or Boko Haram. Likewise, working closely together with Egypt to create a real strengthening of the borders and a strategy for preventing terrorist infiltration can bring other counterterrorism partners on board. EU and other Western countries will not directly oppose Iran or Turkey, but they could be brought on board in creating counterterrorism programming, joint educational projects, and skill building for the local population that would move them away from Iran or Turkey affiliated schools and associations. At the end of the day, stable and prosperous African countries, countering jihadism, and preventing future refugee crises, is in everyone’s interess.
In terms of hard power, the Gulf States block should seek to build naval and other bases in strategic locations, either to keep a lookout for Iranian or Turkish maneuvering, or to put pressure on the two countries and make them unwelcome in areas where they have not yet gone. Saudi Arabia has been trying to build up its presence along the Horn of Africa, but it’s not enough. THe other countries should do the same, and Egypt should engage in additional joint training with these and other African countries all throughout, using its formidable army to disincentivize Turkish and Iranian spread. Egypt’s army is increasingly well equipped, but still suffers from lack of agility for easy transport to additional locations. Joint training exercises and work with African countries, with greater experiences in this area could help address this problem.
That would matter in terms of guarding strategic waterways and undermining future smuggling attempts. Iranian smuggling of weapons will not end with Yemen. The United States, which had largely steered clear of the conflict, should be brought on board with securing the waterways and preventing the smuggling to Houthis, but also, potentially to other types of terrorists, or towards yet-unknown destinations. It is in the US’ best interests to prevent proliferation of unchecked arms and to pressure Iran wherever possible. It is also not out of the question that in the future, Turkey may assist Iran with its Yemen efforts. Despite earlier Saudi claims, that 85% of Yemen has been secured by the Saudi-backed forces, the outcome of that battle is far from clear to the outside observers. An alliance with Turkey and Qatar gives Iran, previously under pressure from domestic economic problems and unrest, as well as the financial slow down and increasingly limited ability to recruit proxies, a second breath. That is why disrupting the flow of weapons and blockading Iranian smuggler ships is of paramount importance.
Smuggling of weapons, however, can take a turn for the worst. Iran and Turkey may choose to harass trade ships, or arm pirates and terrorist organization in Africa and elsewhere. No country operating in that part of the world will be entirely safe, even running ships that are armed. Most importantly, however, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and others have failed to convey to the international community that the takeover of Yemen by Houthis presents an existential threat to the Gulf States. Until this point, the Yemen conflict has been viewed as nothing more as a proxy war, a war aimed at curbing regional influence of the other side. In reality, takeover of Yemen is central to Iran’s strategy of regional expansion. Yemen directly borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. If Yemen is ever to fall, a quick excursion in that direction by Iran-backed forces, hardened in battle, is sure to follow.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are not in an equal position in this conflict. Iran is fighting for yet another step in its colonial campaign. If it temporarily loses the battle, her forces can always regroup and come back to fight another day. Saudi Arabia has no such luxury. If it loses this proxy war, it will come under a direct attack from the enemies. This has not been made sufficiently clear to the United States, which sees Yemen as nothing more than a failed sovereign state with its own destiny, in which Saudi Arabia has unduly and annoying interfered. Other forces on the ground in Yemen – assorted terrorists groups, Russians, and various contractors – will be fine even if YEmen falls to Houthis. Russians are already working with Iran (and perhaps instigated the rebellion to begin with), the terrorists aim to see Saudi government fall – and thus, are in essence helping Iran, despite being Sunni – and the contractors have unclear goals and motivations – but likely are hoping to benefit from the ongoing chaos. None of it bodes particularly well for the anti-Islamist alliance.
Given the gravity of the situation, the US should stop censuring Saudi Arabia for its actions, and instead, step up to the plate beyond providing logistical assistance and fighting terrorists to built up the alliance, train Saudi ground forces to make them battle ready, work jointly to blockade Iranian smugglers, and develop a viable strategy for neutralizing Houthis and cutting off Iran’s involvement in that area. The United States has everything to lose from the region being overrun with Iranians and their proxies, as well as terrorists of all stripes. If this is not the time for the United States to come out swinging in defense of her allies, there may not be another time to follow.
Deescalating the Gulf Conflict and moving Qatar away from Iran and Turkey would play a significant role in strengthening the GCC, and in particular assuring Saudi government’s survival. Iran is increasingly devastated economically; Qatar’s financing is behind much of Iranian operations in that region. Qatar could provide an important military bulwark against Iranian and Turkish encroachment throughout Africa, and assist with blocking weapons smuggling to Yemen. Moving Qatar to Saudi camp would be a heavy blow to Iran and Turkey. However, for the time being, it is unlikely. Qatar has succeeded in playing the United States against Saudi Arabia on this front (thanks, to some extent, to Saudi and UAE misrepresentation of the conflict), and US just does not see the issues as dire and existential; the Trump administration views this conflict as petty internal bickering among old frienemies.
The Gulf State block has done an exceedingly poor job of presenting their case in the appropriate light. Qatar views Saudi Arabia as weak, losing the influence battle, and herself as rising in Africa and abroad. Saudi Arabia, despite its apparent best efforts at reform and winning the world’s opinion, has been met largely with skepticism, if not outright jeering. Qatar has used a charm offensive to attract willing advocates in the West, and has positioned itself as the financial backer of two aggressive regimes that are supposed to be at odds with other, but who have made a pact and are stronger for it. All the while, the West continues to dream that Turkey is Iran’s enemy and that the alliance naturally will fall apart sooner or later. Such interpretation of the events is naive, dangerous, and chimeric.
In addition to destabilizing and radicalizing campaign all across Africa, Iran in particular has been engaging in the same sort of campaign in Latin America, funding the proliferation of schools and cultural centers, as well as terrorist raining in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Cuba. As for Turkey, it is aggressively recruiting and influence peddling throughout the Balkans, creating an explosive situation thanks to increased Russian and Chinese presence in the area, in addition to elements of Iran-backed Hizbullah, which have found a home even in that area – although for now, mainly in order to spy on Jewish tourists and Israeli objects. The spy skulduggery however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Hizbullah operatives have previously perpetrated terrorist attacks in Bulgaria; Islamists of all stripes are viewing Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania as spheres of influence. The situation is very sensitive and unstable, and should a conflict of any sort every occur among the many vested interests, all of Europe could potentially be affected. And Turkey is very much working towards that end.
Until recently, the anti-Islamist alliance has wiled away its days backing pointless anti-Israel resolutions at the UN and HRC. For the first time, however, Saudi Arabia can use its behemoth weight in OPEC, among the Arab League and as a member of the Human Right Council for something positive: specifically, to limit Iranian and Turkish influence, and to hold the two countries accountable before the international community for their gross human rights violations and their threats to international stability and peace with aggressive actions against their own citizens, and with invasions and interventions abroad. It should start with condemning Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, and with sponsorship of public resolutions in various entities, that would find a way of biting the two countries, with extensive additional sanctions being the next steps.
Unless, the Gulf State block starts taking real action beyond griping and complaining, their own stability, as well as independence of African countries, other Middle Eastern states, parts of Europe, and even trade routs of the US could be permanently disrupted, if not ended. The US, for its part, could refocus some of its attention from chasing ISIS to dealing with top priority threats, which are far more advanced, populous, and financed by states. It is no position to lose any more allies, particularly to wars and assassinations, rather than occasional disputes that could be resolved at some later point and with future administrations.