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Does the US have to intervene in Libya in order to secure Gulf unity?

The US pushing for Gulf unity and re-conciliation

The US has recently stepped up efforts to regain unity in the Gulf, as earlier talks have failed to reconcile the differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (along with the UAE).

US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook on Sunday acknowledged the challenge ahead of ending the crisis that has torn apart the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain part of the siege. Egypt also joined the blockade, which saw nations close their airspace and borders to Qatar in June 2017. Kuwait and Oman, the two other nations in the GCC, have sought dialogue between the countries since, with Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah leading those efforts.

While the blockade of Qatar encompasses far broader sets of issues, from a US perspective the airspace component has become a priority as it intersects with the Trump administration’s attempt to isolate and pressure Iran.
In recent months, US officials have made several attempts to broker an airspace deal as part of a push to make tangible progress on ending the rift among close US partners by focusing on specific issues rather than a general reconciliation or a grand bargain.

“The dispute has continued for too long,” Hook told reporters from Doha after meeting with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. “Bringing an end to this dispute really will advance the collective interests of all the parties to this conflict.”

From a US perspective, the airspace issue has become problematic for two reasons. First, it results in overflight payments to Iran, which the Fox report suggested amounted to $133mn a year. This does not sit easily with the Trump administration’s effort to squeeze the Iranian regime through a combination of direct sanctions and pressure on US partners to reduce their own dealings with Tehran. Second, the fact that US diplomats and members of the military regularly travel on commercial flights operated by Qatar Airways is deemed to expose them to potential risk while in Iranian airspace.

From a US perspective, the airspace issue has become problematic for two reasons. First, it results in overflight payments to Iran, which the Fox report suggested amounted to $133mn a year. This does not sit easily with the Trump administration’s effort to squeeze the Iranian regime through a combination of direct sanctions and pressure on US partners to reduce their own dealings with Tehran. Second, the fact that US diplomats and members of the military regularly travel on commercial flights operated by Qatar Airways is deemed to expose them to potential risk while in Iranian airspace.

Diplomats and Gulf sources have told the Reuters news agency the US has been trying to convince Saudi Arabia and its allies to reopen their airspace, but mediation efforts since the start of 2020 have yet to bear fruit. The challenge therefore for US officials and other potential mediators is that there is no single or straightforward way to resolving the rift in a way acceptable to all parties to the dispute. The lack of consensus has persistently undermined efforts to resolve the issues raised by the blockade on a case-by-case basis or through bilateral talks and shows no imminent signs of ending. MBS seems to be balancing US pressure to end the blockade with Emarati pressure to maintain it.

Why previous attempts at talks have failed

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the centre of opposing ends of a Gulf dispute that has engulfed the region in the last couple of years. Saudi and several Gulf states initiated a blockade of Qatar in June 2017 over what they claimed was Qatari support for terrorism. The boycotting nations set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including the closing down of Al Jazeera Media Network, shuttering a Turkish military base and reducing ties with Iran.

In the last year, there have been several attempts at talks between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In 2019, a breakthrough was made, as Qatar’s foreign minister has made an unannounced visit to Riyadh, amid signs that a 2-1/2-year rift among U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states could soon subside. During his visit, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met senior Saudi officials and made an offer to end the rift between Qatar and its blockading neighbours, an Arab official told the WSJ on Thursday. It was unclear if the visit included a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This was the highest-level visit by a Qatari official to the kingdom since May when Qatar’s prime minister attended an Arab summit in Mecca.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s power-sharing agreement in Yemen last year is what appears to have kicked off this general push for Gulf unity, it might be because of increasing sentiment towards Iran, or a general realization that the disunity has not resulted in any geopolitical, economic or military gains.

The significance of this was clear, and there was widespread hope that this would lead to the end of the blockade soon, and strengthening of Gulf Unity. However, complications mudded these visions.

In an unexpected turn of events, at the start of 2020, talks had appeared to have broken down, as Qatar’s foreign minister said efforts to resolve a years-long Gulf diplomatic crisis were not successful and were suspended at the start of January. He did not elaborate further on the suspension of talks despite signs at the time pointing to a possible thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. A Qatari source familiar with government thinking told Reuters that discussions had ended because demands on Qatar were unrealistic, saying “we weren’t going to become a proxy state”, hinting at Saudi Arabia demanding it impose its influence on Qatar and use it to advance its geopolitical interests, especially in countering Iran on the Persian Gulf.  According to the sources, Qatar’s priority from the talks was to restore freedom of movement for its citizens, reopen the airspace of boycotting countries and Qatar’s only land border with Saudi Arabia.

It is therefore clear that Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s previous attempts at talks have failed for several reasons, and the US does not have an easy task on its hands. Furthermore, recent developments in Libya will only worsen the situation, as will be discussed in the next section.

How the war in Libya could block any further progress

The war in Libya could be a major obstacle in US efforts to unite the Gulf, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides.

Since the death of Libyan leader Gaddafi in 2011, various Libyan groups have been engaged in a civil war, that has escalated since 2014. Since 2014, as the main forces in the conflict, the UN-recognized Tripoli government under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), has been fighting against the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. Backed by the parliament, LNA is based in the eastern city of Tobruk. Over the last few years, foreign powers have increasingly intervened in Libya’s civil war to defend their own strategic and economic interests. The GNA is backed by the UN and western countries, but its main allies are Turkey, Qatar and Italy. The LNA enjoys the support of Russia, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, France and Jordan.

Despite early gains, and controlling much of the landmass of Libya, as well as heavy support from Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, General Khalifa Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) rebel forces have continued to lose ground to the Government of National Accord (GNA), whose forces have received air and ground support from Turkey. Now, in the latest escalation in the conflict, Egypt’s parliament has approved sending Egyptian troops to Libya to counter Turkey.

This latest escalation will serve as a major obstacle for Qatar-Saudi talks as Qatar along with Turkey supports the GNA and are involved in the conflict, while Saudi Arabia supports the LNA. The Libyan National Army (LNA) Spokesperson Major General Ahmed al Mesmari said Sunday that his country seeks to realize a political resolution for the current crisis while adding that Turkey and Qatar do not want such a thing to happen. Al Mesmari added in press statements that Ankara violated the current ceasefire by sending more mercenaries in order to carry out the Turkish goals in Libya. He also said that the Turkish regime used commercial vessels to smuggle arms into Libya. However, what is not mentioned by al Memsmari is that Russia had also deployed mercenaries in support of the LNA, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also not contributed to peace talks by arming the LNA. Egypt’s move to send in troops to Libya will only worsen attempts at peace.

Nevertheless, Qatar maintains strong relations with Turkey. Earlier this month Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani has hailed his country’s strategic relations with Turkey. “Strategic relations between Qatar and Turkey are growing day by day, particularly in the fields of economic, investment, commercial, energy and defence cooperation to serve the common interests of our nations,” bin Abdulrahman said on Twitter on Friday.

There are therefore no signs that Qatar will back out of Libya, and neither will Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Hence, it is hard to see US-backed talks bear any results as tensions are on the rise in Libya. So if the US wants to achieve any results, it must first look to Libya for a solution. However military intervention would be the worst possible move, so if the US wants to pursue its goal, all it can do is mediate in negotiations between the two parties.

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