Qatar Dust-Up, Let Rex Sort it Out
The sudden embargo on Qatar pushed this month by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia has irked the US State Department and Pentagon.
The Qatar dust -up has opened a fascinating window on the inner workings of The Trump Administration’s foreign policy. It is a rare instance in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the “quiet man” in The Trump Team, appears to have convinced the President to back off his initial course and, as a White House official puts it, “let Rex handle it,” for now.
The 5 June announcement of the anti-Qatar blockade surprised the US on several levels, officials said. It was a diktat, without clear demands or a pathway to resolution.
The timing was awkward, coming soon after President Trump had attended a regional summit in Riyadh at which Qatar appeared to be a valued participant, and just as the US was launching the final phase of its campaign to clear Islamic State extremists from Raqqah, Syria.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis feared the blockade might jeopardize US operations at Al Udeid Air Base, south of Doha, the most important US military hub in the region.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to Washington, acknowledged the State and Pentagon criticism of his country’s action. But he argued in an interview that the US should see the issue as an “opportunity” to reduce Qatar’s support for extremism in the region, rather than as “a crisis that needs to be defused.”
Al Otaiba said a formal list of demands to Qatar had not been completed yet, because of coordination among the 4 main boycotters, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The message to Qatar will be: “If you want to be part of our team, here’s a clear list of things you have to do.” Al Otaiba added that many of the demands would focus on pledges Qatar made in 2014 to reduce support for opposition groups in neighboring countries.
When the blockade was first announced, there was an obvious disconnect in US policy.
Secretary of State Tillerson said on 5 June in Australia: “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences.” He wanted to de-escalate this Arab family feud before it got too hot, and potentially violent.
President Trump’s instinct was to side with the Saudis and Emiratis.
He tweeted on 6 June: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
Then over the next 10 days, President Trump decided to give Sec. Tillerson responsibility for negotiating a solution. Partly that reflects the White House’s deference to Sec Tillerson’s decades of personal relationships in the Gulf.
Sec. Mattis’ concern partly reflects his desire to concentrate fire on the Islamic State(ISIS).
US Commanders say the final conquest of Raqqah, which began over a week ago, is going better than expected. The US-backed assault force numbers more than 40,000, with somewhere between 35 and 50% local Arabs, and the rest Kurds.
There’s fragile liaison with the disparate combatants in eastern Syria — Russians, Iranians, Turks, and the Syrian regime. The US wants to “deconflict” and not complicate matters with regional feuds.
Qatar’s Defense Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said in an interview Wednesday that in the negotiations ahead, Qatari officials “will have maneuvering space to get to a deal that does not jeopardize our sovereignty.”
If that happens, this the GCC Arab quarrel is on the way to getting resolved, and the argument to let Rex sort it out will gain strength in an administration that’s still learning the diplomatic ropes.
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