In Washington, tough position on Qatar despite confused signals

Sunday 11/06/2017
The Trump factor. US President Donald Trump during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, on June 9. (AP)

The United States fired off a series of contradictory statements on the Qatar crisis that have left coun­tries in the Middle East guessing whether Washington is strongly siding with Saudi Arabia or calling for compromise.
In the first serious test for US President Donald Trump’s govern­ment in the Middle East, the ad­ministration is facing a complicated conflict that mixes rivalries among Sunni Arab countries with US mili­tary interests, the fight against Is­lamist extremists and efforts to box in Shia power Iran. Formulating a comprehensive strategy to deal with that situation would be diffi­cult for any administration but the Trump government’s lack of inter­nal coordination in the absence of a clear list of priorities has made the task more formidable.
The president himself sowed confusion with several tweets and telephone calls that displayed sup­port for Riyadh but also suggested a mediating role for the United States before telling a news conference in Washington that he was behind the Saudi-led action against Doha and that Qatar should stop funding radi­cal groups.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qa­tar and closed their borders to the country on June 5, accusing Qatar, which has been supporting groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, of strengthening extremist move­ments, a charge Doha denies.
“The nation of Qatar, unfor­tunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism and at a very high level,” Trump said. He added that “nations came to me and want­ed to speak to me about confront­ing Qatar over its behaviour” after meeting with leaders from dozens of Muslim countries in Riyadh last month. “So we had a decision to make,” Trump said. “Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism.”
He also said there were other countries that could come under pressure. “I won’t name other coun­tries but we are not done solving the problem but we will solve that prob­lem,” Trump said.
Less than an hour before the president spoke, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered com­ments that stood in marked con­trast to Trump’s statements, calling on Saudi Arabia to ease the block­ade against Qatar. He said the ac­tion against Doha was disturbing US commercial interests in the region as well as “hindering US military actions by the US and the campaign against [the Islamic State]”. Tiller­son said Washington supported me­diation efforts by Kuwait. It was not immediately known whether the secretary had cleared his remarks with the White House.
Like Tillerson, other US officials also took a much softer line on Qa­tar than Trump. US Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith re-tweeted posts from last October in which she praised Qatar for a “great part­nership, real progress to counter terrorist financing.”
Trump presented his June 9 re­marks as reflecting the collective thinking of the Pentagon and the State Department, overriding Tiller­son’s reservations. “I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tiller­son, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding,” the presi­dent declared.
US Defence Department spokes­man US Navy Captain Jeff Davis thanked the Qataris “for their long-standing support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security.” He was referring to the Al Udeid base south of Doha, home to a forward headquarters of the US Central Command, an ul­tra-modern command centre with 10,000 US soldiers that oversees op­erations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, including air strikes in Syria and other places.
David Weinberg, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democ­racies, a Washington think-tank, pointed out that Trump himself had called Qatar, a member of the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a strategic partner only last month. “There does ap­pear to be a variety of messages coming from Washington on this is­sue,” Weinberg wrote via e-mail.
Trump’s statements June 9 came after he had chosen a more concil­iatory tone in telephone calls with leaders in the region. In a call June 6, Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud discussed “preventing the financing of ter­rorist organisations and eliminat­ing the promotion of extremism by any nation in the region,” the White House said in a release. Trump also stressed “that a united Gulf Cooper­ation Council is critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability.”
In a call with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani a day later, Trump repeated the message of unity and underlined “the impor­tance of all countries in the region working together to prevent the fi­nancing of terrorist organisations and stop the promotion of extrem­ist ideology.” Trump suggested a mediation role for the United States, “including through a meeting at the White House if necessary.”
Alex Vatanka, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Wash­ington, said Trump could use the United States’ special role in the re­gion to defuse the crisis. “The USA remains the external guarantor of security for all GCC states,” Vatanka said.
In that capacity, Washington “should not be too quick to take sides,” Vatanka warned. A continu­ing isolation of Qatar in the region and a withdrawal of US support from the country could result in Doha seeking closer ties with Iran, which would be against US inter­ests.
Any mediation effort would have to address internal imbalances of the GCC, where smaller members such as Qatar, Kuwait and Oman were not always happy with poli­cies put forward by heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Vatanka said. Another issue was Qatar’s ef­forts to position itself as a power with good relations with Iran as well as the United States.
“The Qatari decision to be in bed with everyone has been a high-risk strategy” that now appeared to “bite” the rulers in Doha, Vatanka said.
Some US observers said Trump’s encouragement for Saudi Arabia, on display during his visit to the region, might have been a factor in triggering the spat.
“Trump’s embrace of the Saudi- UAE vision during his Middle East trip looked dangerous at the time,” Marc Lynch, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University wrote in the Washington Post. “The unfolding implications over the last two weeks suggest that those risks may have been understated.”