The Qatar crisis: Will Doha hold or fold?


The Trump administration’s confusing statements and actions say it all. In the latest dissonance last Friday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Riyadh-led coalition of Arab Sunni-majority states to relax its land, sea and air “blockade” of Qatar. It was constricting food supplies, he said, and hampering the war on Islamic State (IS).

Then, over an hour later, President Donald J. Trump declared at a White House news conference that Qatar had “been a funder of terrorism at a very high level”, and should cease doing so. He said the blockading nations—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab of Emirates and Bahrain—spoke to him after his recent Middle East visit about “confronting Qatar over its behavior”.

When the closing of embassies, borders, shipments and flights was announced two weeks ago, Trump allowed that his speech to the Gulf Cooperation Council could have spurred it.

Last week he called the Emirs of Kuwait and Qatar. The Kuwaitis visited Doha, but got no deal. His host, meanwhile, decided not to see the Donald in DC at the President’s invitation. If that’s not fun enough for analysts of Washington’s Middle East policy, last week it emerged that lobbyists and agencies representing Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel—yes, Israel—gave more than $1 million to 10 American congressmen who filed a bill in the US House of Representatives mandating sanctions against Qatar. Yup, the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Israelis ganged up on the Qataris on Capitol Hill. The Palestinian International Terrorism Support Prevention Act of 2017 proposes to ban exports of arms and defense technologies to Qatar, as well as financing above $10 million.

There’s more: Turkey has taken Qatar’s side, calling for sanctions to end, even as its Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu discussed Qatar and Syria with Secretary Tillerson. Also on Doha’s side is Teheran, whose good relations with the beleaguered Arab state is one reason for the discord.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan pledged support for Qatar, approving a law to send troops there, plus a military training accord. He told Bahrain’s foreign minister that the crisis should be resolved before Ramadan ends on the evening of June 24. And Turkey promised food and water for Qatar.

How did we get here?

Before figuring out what’s ahead, let’s see how we got here.

It’s no secret that the Saudis and other Sunni Arab states have been unhappy with Qatar’s cordial ties with Shia stalwart Iran, and its funding of Islamist groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which have extremist leanings and links.

Thus, Qater hosts America’s biggest air base in the region and the nerve center of its air campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria. But its neighbors and Washington have long  disdained Doha’s funding for Islamist movements following the 2010 “Arab Spring” uprisings and including Palestine’s Hamas radicals, who like rocketing Israel.

Still, the Obama administration preferred to avoid Arab discord, especially one that could disrupt ties with Qatar, especially its hosting of the sprawling US Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, America’s largest military facility in the Middle East, with 11,000 personnel, 120 aircraft, the region’s longest runways, and control of air operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations.

Then the Donald blew into the desert, and told the GCC to turn the screws on terrorism and its supporters. Apparently even Qatar, despite its crucial role in America’s military operations. And so the Saudis and their friends turned the screws, cutting diplomatic and transport links with Doha.

Where is this going?

Given the high stakes and the giant players, with Russia almost surely waiting in the wings for any opportunities to gain clout and advantage from the geopolitical tussle, will Doha fold, or will it hold, banking on Istanbul, Teheran, and maybe Moscow for needed supplies? And what of America’s billion-dollar mega-base 32 km from the capital?

Well, for all their protestations, Turkey and Iran simply are too far away to be much help with logistics, and Russia even more so. And they, too, want funds to stop flowing to terrorists.  And if the US Congress enacts tough sanctions, the financial and economic impact would be even more debilitating for Qatar.

Hence, Doha will probably scale down its support for Islamists, especially those with hard-to-hide terrorist associations. Plus: it would rein in most, if not all, 59 personalities and 12 institutions linked to it and blacklisted by Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

That should reopen the closed diplomatic and transport channels, and most important, keep the Al Udeid base bustling as usual and dispatching B-52 bombers, F-16 fighters and E-8C reconnaissance planes in missions against IS.

But don’t count the terror groups out. They and their backers, including those in Qatar and even Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, will find ways. And they’ll be angrier than ever.

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