In Washington, tough position on Qatar despite confused signals
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.”