No room for optimism in the Middle East
The Middle East is not the same region it was just a week ago. Unprecedented developments have put experts in a difficult situation, with some trying to figure out what is going on, and others resorting to conspiracy theories. The week started with a diplomatic crisis in the Gulf, whereby Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar and closed their airspace to commercial flights.
The tiny Gulf country is accused of harboring or supporting terrorist and sectarian groups that aim to destabilize the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Qatar vehemently denies this. It is the worst crisis between powerful Arab states in decades. Regional and global actors, including Turkey and Kuwait, have taken steps to mediate.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he suspects there was foul play in this crisis but does not know “who is behind this yet,” US authorities believe Russian hackers were responsible for planting fake remarks in stories run by Qatar’s state news agency, which is considered the last straw that provoked Riyadh.
Amid the crisis, Turkey’s Parliament ratified two agreements on deploying troops in Qatar and training its gendarmerie forces. Many have exaggerated this development, saying Ankara is ready to defend Qatar against an intervention, but the presence of Turkish troops there is nothing new. A military base was set up by Ankara as part of an agreement signed in 2014, and 150 troops are already deployed there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suspects there was foul play in the current crisis but does not know ‘who is behind this yet.’
The raids on Iran’s Parliament and the tomb of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran, which claimed 12 lives and injured 43, was another hot topic of the week. The attacks were claimed by Daesh, which makes this development even graver. They were the first known attacks by the group in Iran’s capital, at least of this scale. Unsurprisingly, Tehran blamed Saudi Arabia. It is a matter of curiosity how Iran will respond.
As if these developments were not enough, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced it would hold a referendum on independence on Sept. 25. This is likely to be strongly opposed not just by the central government in Baghdad but also other regional actors. Turkey and Iran have traditionally opposed Kurdish moves toward independence out of concern it would fuel similar demands by their own Kurdish populations.
Prior to all these developments, the US-led coalition launched its offensive to take the Syrian city of Raqqa from Daesh. The operation has been a serious cause of tension between Ankara and Washington due to US military support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is a Syrian offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey and Iran have postponed a planned round of talks on Syria in Kazakhstan, which Moscow had proposed to hold on June 12-13. Given that the situation on the ground is so tense due to the Raqqa operation, postponing the talks is not good news. Against this backdrop, the Syrian refugee crisis is worsening daily. Amid these crises, these innocent people are paying the highest price.
With increased uncertainty in the Middle East, it seems there is no room for optimism. Sadly, the coming weeks are likely to be tough for the region and its observers.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on