Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article are his own.
Nic Robertson: The dangerous divide in the Middle East urgently needs attention from America's top diplomat
Will US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson snap out of his reticence and shine?
In the Middle East, new lines are being drawn, for now not on maps, but indelibly across the territory, affecting the lives of millions.
It is a moment for this generation’s diplomats to lead through the change, a chance for US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to snap out of his reticence and shine.
It’s not just the war in Syria but the face-off between Gulf allies and Qatar that is at the heart of this shift.
The 13 demands Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have given Qatar defy a quick diplomatic fix and could herald a major regional shake-up.
But this discord didn’t come from nowhere. Its roots run through the Syrian conflict, out the other side to the Arab Spring and before.
Bush and Obama failed them
In the eyes of his Gulf allies, President George W. Bush failed them, invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein, allowing Iran to extend its Shia theocracy beyond its borders into what had for generations been Sunni-led land.
In their eyes again, President Obama failed them when he didn’t back their common allies – Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia – during the Arab Spring.
Obama also compounded Saudi angst by cementing a nuclear deal with Iran a few years later and failing to more fully engage Assad’s and Iran’s forces in Syria.
Saudi Arabia ramped up its defense spending, super-sized its security forces and surrounded itself with Sunni allies. Along that path a new ambitious heir to the throne has arisen.
Fast forward to today and the clash with Qatar comes as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies seek to impose their vision on the region. In short: to demand allegiance in an atmosphere poisoned by the polarization that seeps out of Syria.
In the past three months alone, missiles from Russia, Iran and America have slammed Syria. Like regional rival Turkey, each has combat troops in-country.
A proxy war without rival in recent time
The battle on the ground is finally slowing as Assad consolidates his grip, and separately ISIS’s caliphate is being scotched from the landscape. But what the regional crisis reveals – shrouded in the multi-layered surrogacy of this war – is an ugly, ethno-sectarian disease spreading its infection way beyond Syria’s borders.
While we have all been distracted by the destruction and death inside Syria, it’s what’s happening outside that could become a serious cause for concern, too.
As divisive as the Syrian conflict has become, what really threatens to rip through today’s Middle East alliances is the Gulf standoff with Qatar. It comes at a magnitude and pace that could, if it is not settled soon, look like a road that should have been taken in life’s rear-view mirror.
But as this region teeters on the verge of fundamental change, President Trump is distracted by domestic political drama. Trump’s recent trip to Saudi still has many guessing here about what was said in his conversations with Arab leaders and whether he may have inadvertently played a role in triggering the sudden confrontation.
Europe, too, is distracted, both by kvetching over Brexit, and by grappling with the implication that President Trump is not just absent from the world stage but also a stranger to their values. There is much curiosity about what Trump will say and do on his trip next week to the G20 summit in Hamburg, where he is to meet Vladimir Putin for the first time since taking office.
In short, many eyes have been off this ball, which may explain why there is still confusion over what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain really hope to achieve through their 13 demands.
Do they intend to separate Qatar from Iran, with which it shares a massive natural gas field, or re-orient it away from political Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Or is it as Qatar’s Foreign Minister fears, to strip Qatar of its sovereignty? “We are left to conclude that the purpose of the ultimatum was not to address the issues listed, but to pressure Qatar to surrender its sovereignty. This is something we will not do,” he said.
It may also be a clumsy cleft in the road for conservative Sunni Islam. Both the Qataris and the Saudis follow Wahhabism, Sunni Islam’s least liberal interpretation, and the challenge would be which nation would direct conservative Sunni values.
Ever since King Salman, father of the newly-elevated Crown Prince Monhammed Bin Salman, came to the Saudi throne, he has been focused on expecting loyalty from allies, something President Trump may recognize.
Last year the Kingdom cut several billion dollars in funding to Lebanon out of concern its erstwhile Sunni allies there could not stop the money ending up in the pockets of Hezbollah, Iran’s militarized Lebanese proxies. It was an object lesson in loyalty that neighbors like Jordan heeded.
Wake-up call for Tillerson?
Perhaps a little belatedly, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally has his eye on the ball, undoubtedly recognizing that the stakes are very high.
Tillerson is proving far more timid in his new role than expected, given that, as CEO at Exxon, he’d been known as a robust leader.
A glimmer perhaps returned this week when asked if he was satisfied with the pace of staffing at the senior levels of the department, he responded, “No, I’d like it to go faster.” Tillerson was reported to have had a heated clash with White House officials on that same issue.
But perhaps this was really a reflection of his workload and a realization of how far behind he is, and how much of a hole the Middle East might be in, without sustained diplomatic intervention.
In the past few days alone, Tillerson has met with several of the Qatar standoff protagonists publicly, including the Qatari foreign minister and the Kuwaiti acting information minister, who like Tillerson has become a middleman trying to manage a way out of the chaos.
Tillerson may also have met others on the QT. A Saudi source in senior Royal circles told me how jet lagged he was, having gone without sleep for 2 days. He didn’t say where he’d been, or who with, but I know his boss is enough of a player to be in this up to the hilt.
Perhaps it’s a sign that Tillerson is finally finding his way diplomatically. If so, it would be little surprise, given that he is rubbing shoulders with just the sort of oil wealth he made a career wooing.
Certainly the eloquent and sophisticated Emirati diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash holds Tillerson in high esteem, noting, “Secretary of state Tillerson is the leading global diplomat, so we expect nothing less from him and appreciate very much the U.S. attempts to mediate and find a solution to the problem.”
On that, perhaps the Qataris do agree, their foreign minister hinting as much: “We agree with Washington that the demands should be rational.”
Tillerson says little about his chances of success “We hope all the parties will continue to talk to one another in good faith,” he said following one of his recent meetings.
The Saudis say their demands are non-negotiable, while the Qataris have already rejected many of them as unrealistic.
Worse even, the Qataris seem to be courting the Saudis’ ire, not only ignoring the demand to close a new Turkish military base in Qatar but actually inviting in more Turkish troops as the deadline ticks down.
At risk here is a further serious regional decline, and a poisoning of relationships that will spread.
Time for bold ambition
What has been unleashed here in recent years won’t be put back in the box.
As fighting ends in Syria, the real regional power plays will begin in earnest as Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi vie to realize their ambitions. The US risks becoming a bit player, losing more leverage. Cauterizing the Qatar rift now might just make all of that more manageable, and might help the US down the road.
This is no time for the United States to be eying ISIS’s demise in Raqqa and thinking of leaving the battlefield. No time for Trump to be anything other than laser-focused on the long term, understanding that disengagement damages the US’s future interests.
Even if his boss is tied up with the fallout over his tweeting, Tillerson’s head needs to be here, big time.
If he gets a result, he can chalk it up as a major diplomatic coup, if he doesn’t, he may, like his predecessor John Kerry, reflect on what might have been, had his boss been more willing to engage.
As it was for Sykes, Picot and Balfour, this is a time for bold ambition, not to draw new lines, but to deftly manage the erasure of old ones.