The Tehran-Doha-Ankara alliance is pursuing the same divide-and-conquer strategy that has already proven to be successful against Iranian opposition to weaken international alliances and organizations. They then successfully exploit the ensuing disorder. Each country has cleverly used instigation and chaos to pit its regional and international rivals against each other, while ripping the benefits of distracted adversaries to its advantage. I
n Africa, Iran is using its diplomatic prowess to weaken and divide the African Union. Iran’s involvement dates back decades to the 1980s, however, those relationships have had their share of ups and down. Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran engaged in aggressive outreach to various African countries. Under President Rouhani, relations with Africa were placed on the backburner, while Iran refocused on the nuclear deal. However, by 2016, Iran was moving back towards looking for new partnership. Thanks to the pressure from Saudi Arabia over the attack on its embassy, a number of African countries, including Sudan, severed their relations with Iran. Others, such as Gambia, had no formal relations with Iran since 2010, when Gambia was found to be receiving illicit arms shipments from an Iranian company. Despite having a limited number of diplomatic relations with African countries, however, Iran upped the ante since 2016 as it seeks to compensate its expenditures in Middle Eastern wars, and the negative attention brought to its proxies, such as Hezbullah in Latin America.
By January 2018, Iran’s exports to Africa crossed $500 million. Rouhani changed his tune vocally calling on his African counterparts to increase political and economic ties. At least part of this new focus has to do with the competition with Saudi Arabia in the Sahel. KSA and UAE are supporting the Sahel G5 – five strategically important Western African countries, in their quest to strengthen the region against terrorists and Iranian incursion. The five countries – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad – are also targeted by Iran, where it is trying to spread influence by arming Shi’a militias, and pursuing the course of soft influence in the mosques. These and other African countries are rich in natural resources, but underdeveloped, and benefit from Iranian economic investment. Iran has completed hundreds of economic projects in Senegal, Nigeria, Sierre Leone, Gambia and others. Iran’s leading copper development firm is breaking ground in North Africa, and offering Iran a new source of funding. At the same time, Iran is strengthening its connections to major African players, such as South Africa, Uganda, and Niger, through brokerage ties. For the past several years, Iran has also been strengthening its ties in East Africa.
For instance, it has been smuggling weapons to Al Shabaab, which works with its strategies of promoting destabilization. The question, of course, is whether it continues to smuggle weapons to Somalia and other countries affected by Al Shabaab’s influence. Launching air strikes with limited success against Al Shabaab is not enough – cutting off funding is vital to curb the likely proxy influence by state actors. Despite past tensions, Iranian banks have resumed operations in West Africa, and Iranian officials have toured these countries on official visits. Oil diplomacy with Nigeria has been the pick of FM Zarif’s 2016 visit. While it’s unlikely that Iran will fully break Nigeria up with Saudi Arabia in the immediate future, the fact that it has made such deep inroads so quickly is disconcerting.
Iran’s activities meant to win leverage in African countries also include sending humanitarian aid to Central African Republic (CAR), its naval bases in various key locations (which also facilitate the smuggling of weapons to Houthis in Yemen), its use of proxies such as Qatar, whose Emir visited Africa for the first time last year, are all actions that cement Iran’s foothold in Africa, challenging the Saudis and the West, and splitting the African Union with the possibility of lucrative economic stimulus to contrast with geopolitical considerations and relationships with the anti-Terrorism Quartet (Egypt, KSA, UAE, and Bahrain), all of which are strongly opposed to Iran’s quest in Africa and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia remains the main energy supplier to southern African countries.
And it has managed to get a 30 year contract to build a base in Iran-friendly Eritrea, securing its access to the strategically important Port of Berbera, and countering Iran’s base there. However, Iran’s expansion has been more even, consistent, and has gotten Iran more bang for its buck in terms of support. At the very least, the number of countries inside the African Union which are at least open to Iranian influence have grown. And there are internal tensions over just how much influence Iran should have and whether it should continue to build bases. Ultimately, Iran’s strategy is to build bases around the world, and that is the key issue that the African Union is in a position to debate and potentially block – for now. With Iran’s increasing economic influence and charm offensives, the argument against allowing the Islamic Republic to do that, is becoming increasingly attenuated. Iran has successfully created and exacerbated existing tensions and differences in interests among the members at the very top level to promote its own agenda, which in the future may clash with the interests of the very countries it is now courting, as they may too be subsumed by Iran’s aggressive and illegal activiites.
Qatar has knowingly pursued the same course of action with regards to breaking down and weakening the GCC. Its rejection of even the watered down version of the demands by the ATQ shows the foresight in creating a critical situation, which Qatar continues to exploit at the expense of the other members. Furthermore, it is taking this opportunities to milk two cows: buy sophisticated weapons, such as S-400s, from Russia, on Turkey’s heels, while retaining a close relationship with the United States, and even making demands. Qatar’s complaint that new sanctions targeting Hamas use new language that unfairly isolates Qatar, and endangers an upcoming F-15 deal, are prime evidence of manipulation and bad faith.
If, as Qatar claims, it no longer has anything to do with Hamas, the language in those sanctions likewise is not a threat to Qatar or its deals. The potential implicit reason, other than perfidy over continuing to maintain relations with Hamas heads, is that Qatar hopes to expand the language that would include other GCC members and their relationship with the local terrorist and militant groups in Syria and Yemen, which have been used as targets against pro-Assad forces and Houthis. Qatar’s hardline position, despite the obvious reasons for concerns from the ATQ, is not about protecting Qatar’s interests (which could be protected just as well if Doha agreed to engage in diplomacy and agree to pay lip service to the demands of the other members), but in a deliberate strategy of weakening GCC. Qatar has a new path now, one that is aligned with what it perceive as rising and stronger partners – Iran, Turkey, and potentially, in the future, Russia. Closeness with Iran and Turkey at the expense of the other Gulf State is letting the tiny Qatar make its own foreign policy mark in Africa and elsewhere.
In December 2017, Emir Tamim embarked on a six-nation tour to demonstrate Qatar’s growing and independent role in that region. By financing Turkish operations in Sudan and other African countries, Qatar is standing up to Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region, while being courted by various major players for its wealth and growing role as a facilitator in bigger geopolitical maneuvers. Qatar is also scoring points with Iran – by challenging the Gulf State hold on East Africa, where Saudi and other militaries enjoy a strategic advantage. Qatar has made an important strategic move by “rehabilitating” Eritrea – a site of numerous Middle Eastern basis. Now, Ethiopia, feeling increasingly isolated and abandoned, as a result of the rising importance of Eritrea, may be in a position to be wooed by Qatar, which in effect, would make it one of the most powerful state actors operating in Africa.
Ethiopia is in the midst of a tense stand off over water issues with Sudan, and ATQ’s Egypt. Sudan, and Turkey, with Qatar’s backing just concluded a series of deals. They have agreed to cooperation, but the progress is slow and the situation remains tense. In the long term, however, the conflict over Nile will likely continue unless there is a solution to satisfy all the stakeholders. Ethiopia a major thorn in Egypt’s sides, and of couse, Qatar exploited the situation by concluding major bilateral talks to strengthen its own relationship with the country. It denied receiving money from Qatar to rebuild the Renaissance Dam, at the center of the dispute. Few are fooled by such pronouncements. Egypt believes Qatar deliberately fueled the crisis to raise Doha’s stock in the region. And while Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia were busy battling it out, Qatar and Ethiopia signed additional security cooperation agreements. Distracted by its own crisis, Egypt was not in the best position to assist the other ATQ partners, particularly against Qatar. Currently, it is facing looming water scarcity. But while Egypt is working to avoid a potential disaster, and finding pathways to bolster its already close relationship with KSA, it is clear that both countries regard Iran’s and Qatar’s inroads in Africa a major impediment to their own security, and yet another issue to deal with on top of the war in Yemen, stabilization of Libya, Muslim Brotherhood, and its proxies, and other regional and transregional security issues. Ultimately, despite the seeming agreement among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, Qatar won this battle by proxy, utilizing the weaknesses in the initial agreemetn and outmaneuvering Egypt with Ethiopia being allowed to rebuild the Renaissance Dam and gain full control of the waters.
The Qatar Charity, meanwhile, is building four major projects along the Nile in Sudan, spreading goodwill and finding foothold in the country closely aligned with Saudi Arabia and UAE – another major blow to the GCC, for which any success by Qatar in influence peddling is a zero sum game. Amid tensions with Egypt, and escalation in Eritrea, Khartoum is now looking to align itself with a wider spectrum of actors, including the wealthier and more powerful ones, who will respond to its economic needs. Qatar has already scored major points, and KSA and UAE may be in danger of losing their leverage there altogether – which will play into the hands of Iran. By competing for influence in countries where GCC was formerly a United Front, Qatar is sending a signal that it is not looking to resolve tensions or to return to its status as the little brother or even an equal partner; rather, it prefers to be viewed as an independent, more powerful, wealthy player – and to not only not to acquiesce to the demands of the bigger stronger GCC members, but to outmaneuver them all economically and politically. For that reason, President Trump’s approach to resolving the GCC crisis — by having the ATQ give in on the blockade or otherwise putting some pressure to offer incentive to Qatar to return to the fold is hopelessly flawed. Qatar has been developing its Africa strategy for sometime; the blockade was merely an excuse to shift away from the ATQ and towards the pursuit of a more high profile and profitable game.
Turkey, closely aligned with Qatar, is using the same playbook to immobilize and outwit its adversaries in Syria and elsewhere. It has deliberately exploited weaknesses in NATO to pit its members against one another and force them to choose between allies in an attempt to preserve the alliance and the apperance of unity. Not only does NATO not have a long term solution for Syria, but Turkey has thrown flames over the ongoing tactical operations which have appeared to win temporary consensus, disrupting the allies and strengthening Russia, Iran, and Turkey’s own positions. Thanks to the ongoing operation in Afrin, the fight against ISIS has been “paused“, according to the Pentagon. That is an admission of compete lack of leverage over Turkey and inability to come up with an actionable solution – a major embarrassment and the blow to grounds for US presence in Syria.
That benefits Turkey, as according to a former ISIS commander, ISIS views the Turkish army as an ally. That relationship is mutually beneficial, as Turkey uses former ISIS recruits in its operations against Kurds. Meanwhile, Turkey has successfully put pressure on Germany to review its extradition demand for Salih Muslim, a Kurish leader, who was briefly detained in Prague. Coaltion forces are fighting alongside Muslim’s PYD and its military arm, the YPG, in Syria. Extraditing Muslim as a terrorist to Turkey would send a signal that the alliance is not legitimate, and would pit the coalition fully against the Kurds in Syria, signaling that the coalition is no longer trying to balance the competing interests of the two sets of allies, but rather openly siding with the NATO ally Turkey, which has positioned itself as being under threat/attack from the Syrian Kurds (although that is not the case, and Turkey initiated the operation without any provocation). Turkey’s value as an ally is dubious.
It has recently purchased S-400s from Russia, and despite having opposed Assad’s Shi’a militias, now, temporarily aligned with the Afrin Kurds, is in generally strategically aligned with Iran, particularly with respect to opposing other Sunni state actors operating in Africa. Signaling that the United States, or, for that matter, NATO, no longer are of interest, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are to hold a summit on the future of Syria in April. Nevertheless, the United States is still hoping to woo Turkey away from Iran and Russia, by playing nice and letting it continue its operation in Afrin that has killed hundreds of civilians, including the rising number of brutalized children killed in air strikes. In a desperate move, US-backed Kurdish fighters from Rojava will be moving to Afrin to lend assistance to the local forces, which are surrounded by Turkey.
US, however, will not be lending direct assistance. Turkey, by interfering with the fight against ISIS, weakened and exploited NATO to further its own agenda of breaking down the Kurds and gaining control of a strategic piece of territory in Syria bordering Turkey. NATO, in a bid to preserve remnants of relationship with the fellow member, is not pushing for investigations of Turkey’s war crimes and civilian casualties; it is paralyzed by Erdogan’s successful maneuvers and losing its prestige thanks to the growing evidence of brutality suffered by the Afrin Kurds, and its inability and unwillingness to protect its other allies. In the meantime, a US citizen is imprisoned in Turkey in an act of political hostage taking, and NATO, nor other internation organizations, have not been able to pressure Turkey to release the hostage and act in a civil manner expected of all NATO allies towards one another. Turkey knows fully well that the Western-backed international institutions crave consensus and appearance of mutual respect more than they crave justice, freedom, respect for human rights, or even regional and mutual security. For that reason, it has successfully exploited existing weaknesses, as well as created and exacerbated new ones, taking advantage of Western psychological weaknesses in their devotion to appearances of alliance above acknowledging substantive realities on the grounds. Thus it has been able to turn Western principles against themselves and force NATO and other institutions to take up remarkably unprinicipled positions for dubious reasons and uncertain causes at a direct loss to themselves and a win for Turkey’s self-serving agenda.
The good guys are losing and allowing themselves to be outmaneuvered by the rogue regimes; they are also allowing their allies to be beaten, humiliated, and exploited. The rogue regimes are winning not because they are the wealthiest, the strongest, or the most clever – but because they understand the inherent weakness of international institutions, and know how to manipulate Western feel-goodism in pursuit of geopolitical strategies. While Western countries are flailing around and making insufferable and useless demands on their friends; their enemies are scoring points and cheering. If only international institutions were as good at punishing their enemies, as they are at beating down and abandoning their friends, they would have already succeeded and outdone Iraq, Qatar, and Turkey in all of these operations.