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Trump Admin Offers to Mediate Middle East Crisis After Arab Nations Reject Qatar

Top U.S. ally in Middle East isolated over support for terrorism

President Donald Trump and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani
President Donald Trump and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani / Getty Images
• June 8, 2017 5:00 am

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The Trump administration is offering to mediate a percolating crisis in the Middle East that has seen several key Arab nations break relations with Qatar, a top U.S. military ally that has played a central role in American counter-terrorism operations, according to multiple U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon about the situation.

Major Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, announced this week that they are ceasing formal ties with Qatar over its continued funding of radical terrorism groups, including Hamas and others.

The announcement took Washington by surprise and sparked concerns that the move could negatively impact American-backed counter-terrorism operations in the region, many of which are coordinated via the U.S.-operated Al Udeid Air Base in Doha.

While Qatar's long-running support for some of the globe's most nefarious terror groups has stoked tensions regionally and with the West, it has often been overlooked due to the Pentagon's reliance on Qatar's military help in the region.

The nation's "double dealing," as some sources described it, hit the breaking point this week, when top Arab nations announced that they are cutting all formal ties and relations with Doha, a move that has only aggravated U.S. policy makers and forced them to more forcefully acknowledge Qatar's support for the terror forces it purports to fight against.

"The United States' relationship with Qatar is strong and we cooperate with Qatar in a number of areas, including in the fight against terror," one State Department official, speaking on background, told the Free Beacon. "All of our partnerships in the Gulf are incredibly important and we count on the parties to find a way to resolve their differences sooner rather than later."

A senior White House official echoed this sentiment in conversations with the Free Beacon, acknowledging that the break in formal ties could result in Qatar becoming closer with Iran, a top enemy of Saudi Arabia and leading U.S. allies in the region.

"We'd like to see them all work it out," one senior White House official told the Free Beacon, describing the situation from the U.S. end as being in wait-and-see mode.

While the United States has not been formally asked to involve itself in the situation, Trump administration officials are pushing for Qatar and the Gulf countries to find a solution, primarily one that sees Doha ending its financial support for terror groups.

At this point, U.S. operations in the region have not been negatively impacted by the decision to isolate Qatar, though this could change down the road, according to U.S. military officials operating in the region.

"We continue to conduct missions in support of ongoing operations across the region, including operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan," one U.S. military official working under U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, told the Free Beacon. "Any change in operations are premature and would amount to speculation at this point."

President Donald Trump on Wednesday formally extended an offer to help mediate the situation during a phone call with Qatari leader, Amir Sheikh Tameem Bin Hamad Al Thani.

"The president emphasized the importance of all countries in the region working together to prevent the financing of terrorist organizations and stop the promotion of extremist ideology," the White House said in a readout of the president's call.

Trump emphasized the need for the Gulf countries to work in tandem in order to effectively combat regional terror threats and support U.S. military operations.

"The president reiterated that a united Gulf Cooperation Council and a strong United States-Gulf Cooperation Council partnership are critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability," the White House said. "The president offered to help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary."

One veteran Middle East policy hand who works closely with the White House told the Free Beacon that Trump's recent trip to the Middle East likely laid the foundation for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations to take a forceful stand against Qatar's terror financing.

"The Obama administration empowered the Qataris to play everyone against each other, and looked the other way as the Qataris funded Sunni and Iran-linked extremists," the source said. "They also forced our Arab allies to accept that reality. President Trump is putting an end to that incoherence, and evaluating allies and adversaries accordingly. The Qataris will either choose to get back onside or the Saudis will make that choice for them."

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or FDD, told the Free Beacon that tensions over Qatar's support for terrorism have been brewing for some time.

"Qatar has been double dealing for years,"Schanzer said.

"Tensions that we see between the Pentagon and other branches of the U.S. government encapsulate the problem of Qatar," he added, explaining that the U.S. government has often downplayed Qatar's terror financing issues in order to bolster the military alliance between the two nations.

"On the one hand the Pentagon needs Qatar to run its operation out of its forward base, on the other hand the Qataris have turned a blind eye, or even worse funded, terrorist groups across the Middle East," Schanzer said. "The dissonance between these two Qatari policies has been at the heart of the dilemma for the last decade."