Qatar crisis reflects waning US influence
Washington- Following the apparently unsuccessful efforts by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to solve the Qatar crisis through shuttle diplomacy, Washington is facing a stark reality: Observers said the Trump administration, riddled with internal differences, does not have enough credibility to mediate the Qatari dispute.
While Tillerson was attempting to mediate a solution to the crisis, US President Donald Trump undercut him by reiterating previous accusations of Qatar having a history of funding terrorism and by raising the option of transferring the United States’ Al Udeid military base out of Qatar.
The big picture is probably that the Americans no longer wield enough influence in the Middle East to end the spat between its allies.
Tillerson spent several days in meetings with officials in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait but headed home July 13 without success. “Hope to see you again under better circumstances,” Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad al-Thani, the brother of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, told Tillerson as he boarded his plane in Doha, Reuters reported.
Observers said there was no easy way forward for the United States in the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Qatar has been under an embargo by them since June 5 and has been relying on help from Iran and Turkey as well as on milk airlifted from Germany to circumvent the boycott.
Qatar said it would negotiate with the four other countries only if they lift their embargo, something the Saudi-led group is unwilling to do. Tillerson warned the crisis is harming US business and military interests in the region.
All parties to the conflict, which revolves around Qatar’s alleged support for extremist groups but is seen by Doha as an assault on its sovereignty, are US allies. The United States has important military bases in Bahrain and Qatar.
Turkey, another important US partner in the region, weighed in on the crisis by siding with Qatar. Ankara’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government has enhanced its military support to Doha since the start of the conflict.
Washington is concerned that the rift could push Qatar into closer cooperation with Iran, seen as a dangerous and destabilising power by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t see an awful lot of options” for the United States, said Nathan Brown, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. The countries involved in the conflict did not display any urgency to arrive at a solution, while the United States lacked the power to push the five countries towards an agreement, Brown said.
“US leverage has receded,” Brown said. “The countries involved are far more assertive today than they were in the 1990s” when the United States held greater sway, he added.
A reason for the decrease of American clout was the “failed interventions” by Washington in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001, said Gordon Adams, professor emeritus at American University’s School of International Service in Washington. The wars showed the “inability of the US to reach its aims” and unleashed “centrifugal forces,” Adams said.
Even though Tillerson’s mission was officially limited to giving support for mediation efforts by Kuwait, the United States waded further into trying to solve the conflict when Tillerson signed a memorandum with Qatar for the joint fight against funding of terrorist groups. The agreement was meant as a signal to the Saudi-led bloc in the dispute that a way out could be found but, during a visit to Jeddah, Tillerson was told by the boycotting group that the memorandum did not go far enough. He returned to Doha to brief Qatar’s leaders but went back to Washington empty-handed.
Adams said Tillerson acted as though US power could bring the two sides to an agreement. “He is still behaving like America can direct traffic in the region but I am afraid he will come up short,” he said about Tillerson.
The lack of a unified position within the Trump administration adds to Tillerson’s problems. “Not only is the region in turmoil, Washington is in continuous turmoil,” Adams said. “Tillerson is just one tweet away from being undermined.”
In the days after the Qatar crisis erupted, Tillerson called on all sides to work for a solution, only to be contradicted by Trump, who came out very strongly in favour of Saudi Arabia and condemned Qatar as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.” Trump’s stance means that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt feel little need to meet Qatar half way to end the conflict.
The US president strengthened that impression during and immediately after Tillerson’s trip. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump called Qatar a “funder of terrorism” that had been told to stop. On July 14, one day after Tillerson ended his mission, Trump told Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in a phone call that countries in the region should “cut all funding for terrorism and discredit extremist ideology,” a White House statement said. The choice of words echoed Trump’s earlier criticism of Qatar.
Trump speculated about the possibility of transferring the Al Udaid Airbase — the largest US military base in the region — outside of Qatar. He said there were no problems regarding the base “but if we ever needed another military base, you have other countries that would gladly build it. Believe me.”
A solution for the crisis will have to come from the region itself, Brown said. The United States could support regional mediation efforts, such as those by Kuwait, but inviting officials from all countries involved to Washington for talks — an idea suggested by Trump in the early days of the spat — seemed unrealistic, he said.
The crisis could drag on for months, Adams said, adding: “There will be a long period of instability in the region.”