Qatar crisis places US regional policing in pickle
In a strange imbroglio, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives on June 5 all announced that they are breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. All but Egypt also cut off all travel links with the country. The Saudi statement accused Qatar of "adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, " and of "supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Days earlier, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based news websites after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying "There is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran"—an obvious reference to the Saudis and Bahrain. Qatar quickly responded that the comment had been "fabricated" when hackers took control of the official Qatar News Agency website (which appears to still be down, although the QNA Twitter account is up). (BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 5; BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 25)
This all seems counter-intuitive at first. Iran and Sunni militant networks like al-Qaeda and ISIS are on opposite sides of the increasingly bitter sectarian divide. And there is a pot-calling-the-kettle-black aspect to this; both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have backed Sunni Islamist factions in Syria, and (repeatedly) faced US pressure over this. But not all Islamists are jihadists—they may wish to impose a reactionary sharia-based order locally, but not be motivated by millennialist visions of bringing down the established political order throughout the Sunni world. Saudi Arabia is clearly terrified of jihadism. It has backed Sisi against Morsi and the Brotherhood in Egypt, and has been largely backing FSA-affiliated factions but not the jihadist formations in Syria. Qatar backed Morsi against Sisi, and is said to be backing jihadist formations in Syria—supposedly even the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
All this places Washington in a particular pickle. Qatar does have good relations with Iran, but also hosts a al-Udeid Air Base—the largest US military installation in the Middle East, and home of the Pentagon's Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). This base provides command and control of US air power in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and several other conflicted countries—critically including the Pentagon's campaign against ISIS.
Qatar's links to various militant factions have also made it diplomatically useful. It chiefly sponsored the "Four Towns" agreement in Syria, negotiated with Iran and Hezbollah, in which civilians trapped under siege by regime or by rebel forces have been bused to other areas. The pact is hailed by some as the only means to evacuate civilians, but derided by others as forced displacement (or "sectarian cleansing"). (NYT, CNN, June 5)
We have noted the irony that the US may be flying sorties out of Qatar against some of the same militant factions that are being backed by Qatar. The new diplomatic break by Egypt and the Gulf States will certainly heighten the contradictions for Washington.
Notably absent from the diplomatic breach is Kuwait, which has actually sought to mediate between Qatar and the other members of the now-ruptured Gulf Cooperation Council. (Kuwait Times, June 5) Kuwait has also recently hosted US military forces, and could provide a fall-back option if Qatar really becomes untenable.
Somewhat curious is the inclusion of the Maldives—not an Arab country or one in the immediate region, but a small nation aspiring to a greater regional role.