Influential former Trump aide advocates tough stand on Qatar

Sunday 29/10/2017
Still in contact. US President Donald Trump (L) and former aide Stephen Bannon in Washington, last January. (AFP)

Washington - An influential former aide of US President Donald Trump pushed for the United States to side with Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Qatar in a sharp rejec­tion of mediation efforts by US Sec­retary of State Rex Tillerson, who toured the region to get the parties in the conflict to compromise.
Stephen Bannon, who served as Trump’s chief strategist until Au­gust, presented his views at a con­ference in Washington. His vision matters because he still has Trump’s ear and is the driving force behind an effort to get followers of Trump’s right-populist agenda elected to Congress in midterm elections next year.
As executive chairman of the Bre­itbart news website, Bannon wields considerable influence over sec­tions of the US conservative move­ment. At the conference hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conserva­tion think-tank, he denied reports linking him to a company reported­ly hired by the United Arab Emirates for an anti-Qatar media campaign.
“The single most important thing that is happening right now in the world is the situation in Qatar,” Ban­non said. Trump made it clear that there would be “no more games,” Bannon said about accusations that Qatar was trying to have good rela­tions with the Saudis and the West while supporting the Muslim Broth­erhood and other groups that some governments consider terrorists as well as having close ties to Iran.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Bannon said at the conference titled “Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran and the Muslim Brother­hood,” a few blocks from the White House. “You can’t on the one side say you’re a friend and an ally and on the other side be financing the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas,” he said about Qatar. Its government denies allegations of supporting terrorism.
“You can’t be on our side and say you’re a friend and on the other side being open to Iran and especially to the mullahs’ war-like posture to the United States and to the West and to the other Islamic countries,” Ban­non added.
He said Trump had a role in bring­ing about the boycott Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced against Qatar in June. “I don’t think it’s just by happen­stance” that the boycott was put in place shortly after Trump’s meeting with leaders from dozens of Muslim countries in Riyadh in May, Bannon said. “Qatar finally had to be called to account” for its funding of radical groups, he said.
Bannon said he supported the original list of demands by the Sau­di-led bloc on Qatar, which include calls to cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, close the Al Jazeera broadcaster and scale back relations with Iran. He described them as “pretty straightforward.”
That position differs sharply from Tillerson’s messages to the region. Speaking after talks with Qatari For­eign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha on October 22, Tillerson praised ef­forts by Qatar to stop money flow­ing to radical groups. Referring to a US-Qatari memorandum of under­standing signed in July, Tillerson said there had been “significant progress” in “sharing of terrorist lists, terrorist financing.” Tillerson said he was “quite pleased,” a tran­script of his remarks stated.
Tillerson’s position was undercut in June when Trump publicly sided with Saudi Arabia in the Qatar cri­sis less than an hour after the sec­retary of state called on the Saudis to ease the blockade against Doha. Despite the setback and the confu­sion about the US position, Tillerson has pushed ahead with his efforts.
During his latest visit to the re­gion, Tillerson admitted that the two sides in the Qatar dispute were not ready to negotiate. “There’s not a strong indication that parties are ready to talk yet,” he said. Remind­ed that Trump had invited all par­ties to the White House for a round of mediation, Tillerson said such an effort would make little sense now. “We cannot force talks upon people who are not ready to talk, so there has been no invitation to the White House,” he said.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity after Bannon called for a pro-Saudi course by the United States, insisted that Tillerson’s mediation efforts re­mained the official administration approach. “The United States will continue to engage all parties to bet­ter help them understand concerns and point out possible solutions,” the official said. “We also continue to support Kuwait in their diplomat­ic efforts.”
All parties should “continue to work towards negotiations, mini­mise rhetoric and exercise restraint to avoid further escalation,” the offi­cial said, repeating calls for a united Gulf Cooperation Council, adding that all involved “cannot afford to detract from those efforts.”