The rift that emerged this week between the Gulf Arab states and Egypt versus Qatar would, on the face of it, seem to be an encouraging development in the war against terrorism. These countries abruptly severed relations with Qatar on the grounds of its support for terrorism.
“[Qatar] embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly,” Saudi state news agency SPA said.
Coming so soon after U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh, during which he called upon the Saudis and others to “drive out terror,” it appears to be a direct response to that call, a significant step forward in the war against terrorism to which President Trump has so passionately pledged himself. The Iranians indeed blame Trump for the current rift and (who says ayatollahs have no sense of humor?) urged the sides to settle their differences peacefully.
However, the matter is not so straightforward.
On the one hand, it is the kind of high-profile, relatively low-cost action that could be calculated to appease Washington. After signing a deal for $110 billion with the U.S. for a major military buildup, the Kingdom undoubtedly feels that it must do something to show its worthiness of American confidence. Here are their latest bona fides: We kicked out those vile, terrorism-mongering Qataris. And sanctions imposed by one Muslim state against another are not something to be pooh-poohed.
Statements of willingness to help in bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to a peace agreement are nice, but are nothing new and hardly change anything. Something more concrete was called for. There will be a certain price to pay in economic ties, but it won’t cost Saudi or Egyptian lives and it will not fundamentally upset life along the Gulf.
On the other hand, as enjoyable as a slap at Qatar might be, the specific consequences are troublesome for the U.S., and it may be that, though Washington was consulted in advance, it was really a Saudi initiative.
Publicly, at least, the administration has not cheered it on. On the contrary, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the move could undermine the fight against terrorism, and played down its importance.
“I do not expect that this will have any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified fight against terrorism in the region or globally. All of those parties you mentioned have been quite unified in the fight against terrorism and the fight against Daesh, ISIS, and have expressed that most recently in the summit in Riyadh,” he said.
While in Riyadh, President Trump spoke positively of U.S.-Qatari relations, and wants to keep them in the coalition. The Gulf States-Egypt move drives an ugly wedge between them. It might even draw the U.S. into join the blacklisting of Qatar — can Riyadh be more anti-terror than Washington? — and that might mean dismantling its base there, the largest American air base in the region.
In addition, besides expelling the Qataris from their countries, they have suspended them from taking part in the GCC’s military operations in Yemen.& This could weaken the resistance to Iran on that front and others.
Judging from Tillerson’s comment, the U.S. will seek to patch things up. A pat on the back for the Saudis for their well-meaning enthusiasm, tempered with some sober advice about going too far too fast. Mustn’t take those sword dances too seriously.
Where that would leave the fight against terrorism is not so clear. Perhaps it will end up as a dramatic rebuke to Qatar, which will once and for all desist from playing genial host to the likes of Hamas. On Monday, several Hamas members were reportedly expelled from the country, including one who is believed by Israeli intelligence to have masterminded the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens that sparked the 2014 Gaza war.
If a long-term change in Qatar’s terror-friendly policy is the outcome, it will be worth the momentary geopolitical vertigo.
In Riyadh last month, President Donald Trump called on America’s allies in the Mideast to “drive out terror.” So far, they have only driven out the Qataris. But it’s a start.