America’s Disconnect on the Qatar Crisis

One of the more overlooked effects of the souring of relations between Qatar and many of its neighbors is the potential for the diminishing of America’s military prowess in the region, and the hindrance of its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). This is magnified due to the presence of the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, from which many reconnaissance and munitions flights against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are done. Further complicating matters for American military activities in the region, and weakening America’s position is the disconnect between President Trump, the State Department, and US Congress, over how to proceed in regards to this crisis that has shaken up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

What began as a list of thirteen demands presented to Doha by six neighboring nations—the most consequential being Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—has evolved into a stalemate crisis as Qatar has refused to meet these demands and is using its financial might to weather the near-blockade. Examples of the original thirteen demands include cutting off ties with Iran, shutting down the Turkish military base that is being built, stopping the funding of groups such as ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, and cutting the cord on their state-run media channel, Al-Jazeera. Since Qatar has refused to meet these demands, nations have taken further steps to isolate Doha, including severing land, sea, and air links with the wealthy nation.

As the crisis continued to garner international attention, President Trump quickly sided with Saudi Arabia, claiming that Qatar was getting what it deserved for supporting terrorism. Simultaneously, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was trying to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible. After weeks of working with Kuwait, the Secretary personally visited the region in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Tillerson has described the Saudis as being opportunistic and that accusations of supporting terrorism are being used to force its neighboring oil-rich nation to change its foreign policy. Furthermore, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Republican Senator Bob Corker, has vowed that Congress will not approve most of the $110 billion arms deal President Trump signed with Saudi Arabia until the dispute is resolved.

While there does not appear to be a coherent or unified American response to the potential unraveling of the GCC, a reality that exists if relations within the Gulf states remain sour is the weakening of America’s ability to fight ISIS. Qatar hosts the US military at Al-Udeid airbase, which holds over eleven thousand American troops, in addition to being the forwrard headquarters for US Central Command (CENTCOM), which is leading the multi-nation coalition fight against ISIS. While various US officials have stated that this diplomatic rift won’t affect their military efforts against ISIS, the truth of the matter is that the enforcement of the blockade has resulted in nations friendly to Qatar, such as Iran and Turkey flying in supplies including foods and cattle. Qatar’s growing dependence on Iran is particularly worrisome for the United States, which sees Iran as threat to the region’s stability. With Qatar being increasingly dependent upon other nations for basic necessities, their ability to manage and secure their military bases can also be somewhat debilitated. This is expounded by the fact that up to forty percent of Qatar’s food is imported from Saudi Arabia.

Al-Udeid base has been used to deploy 84,139 munitions against ISIS as of May 29. Furthermore, aircraft take off and land at the base every ten minutes for bombing sorties above Iraq and Syria. The base has also been used to train Syrian rebels to fight the Syrian regime and ISIS, although it is unclear if this training will continue with President Trump’s decision to end the CIA program arming the rebels.

In an effort to curb any negative effects on anti-ISIS operations, the United States and Qatar signed a memorandum of understanding on fighting terrorism that Secretary Tillerson hopes might help resolve the diplomatic crisis.  Tillerson stated that the agreement “lays out a series of steps that each country will take in coming months and years to interrupt and disable terror financing flows and intensify counter terrorism activities globally.” Although both nations state that this has been in the works from long before the rift began, this agreement can be seen as America’s—and more accurately, the State Department’s—response as it attempts to resolve the crisis and more seriously address the issue of terror financing.

Any weakening of American military capability in the region comes at a crucial time, as Iraq has recently deemed Mosul to be liberated of ISIS, the advance on ISIS-held Raqqa, and relations with Turkey sour because of US support for the Kurdish PYD and YPG, makes training anti-ISIS fighters challenging. It also comes at a juncture where the Syrian regime army and its allies are consolidating territory and challenging the United States along the Syrian-Iraqi border in an effort to connect the two countries. Iran in particular wants a secure land route through Iraq and Syria to guarantee its ability to channel weapons and people across the region and strengthen its position. Any weakening in the United States’ ability to operate in the region could harm the anti-ISIS campaign at this critical juncture and post-military projects to prevent extremist groups from taking root after the military operations.

To further compound matters, the UAE and Saudi are putting additional pressure on the United States to side with them. The Emirati ambassador to the US has stated that the US should consider moving its air base out of Qatar to increase the pressure on the oil-rich nation. As UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba put it, “I think the reason action hasn’t been taken against Qatar is because of the air base. The air base is a very nice insurance policy against any additional pressure.” The ambassador continued to suggest that the US should move its main airbase to the UAE instead. Adding to the regional pressure some nations are putting on America’s use of Al-Udeid base, Captain Jeff Davis has all but confirmed that the diplomatic crisis had the potential to harm future operations. “The evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations. Qatar remains critical for coalition air operations in the fight against ISIS and around the region.” A recent report stated that the UAE hacked Qatar’s accounts and planted the false statements that set off the crisis. Any move against Qatar will now be seen as favoring the countries that caused the crisis.

With CENTCOM running an anti-ISIS coalition out of Qatar which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, and many others, the battle against ISIS will more than likely take a major hit. While member nations quarrel amongst themselves, American capabilities are at risk. Moreover, stark differences between President Trump, the State Department, and Congress do not send a clear nor unified message at a time when unity and clear communication are paramount. The longer this dispute continues, the more likely it is to hurt America’s campaign against ISIS, and more broadly hurt America’s position in the region at a time when critical changes are happening.

Sam Fouad is a political consultant and a global affairs analyst with a focus on the Middle East.

Image: Photo: Qatar's foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sign a memorandum of understanding in Doha, Qatar, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon