Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a blockade on the nation of Qatar recently because of Qatar’s relationship with a number of terrorist and terror-supporting entities. These nations demanded that Qatar adhere to a 13-point plan if the blockade was to be lifted. The 13 points include some very important steps, but also some steps that no sovereign nation could ever agree to, as they would effectively make Qatar subordinate to the other nations.
The matter is important to the United States because we have major military installations in Qatar, as well as treaties that could shatter our alliance with the Gulf states if Qatar should end up at war with those states. That would profit Iran, chief of all, as it would disrupt the alliance opposing Iranian attempts at regional hegemony. (For a fuller background, see SSG’s earlier posts here and also here.)
This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew to both Qatar and Saudi Arabia to try to resolve the crisis. He was not successful. He did obtain a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) with Qatar that the Saudis apparently rejected. (Here is Qatar’s own Al Jazeera on the topic.) This MOU is not a treaty or a deal, but it is a commitment to terms that Qatar would accept if others accepted them. The Saudis apparently didn’t find the terms acceptable, but since the United States signed the MOU as well as Qatar, the Saudis will likely propose new terms that incorporate the MOU but ask for a bit more. This is diplomacy as deal-making, very much the way the Trump administration views diplomacy.
So, how to know if the final deal is a good one from the perspective of the United States? Resolving the crisis on any terms defuses the bomb threatening to blow up our regional alliances, but not every such deal is going to address America’s core interests. Our interests are not the same as those of any of the Arab nations, though some of them overlap. Thus, it is not necessary to obtain a deal that forces Qatar to submit to the whole 13 point proposal. A deal that compromises by allowing Qatar to retain its sovereignty, while obtaining the parts of the 13 points that are American interests, is acceptable.
There are really only two things that America needs to insist upon.
A complete end to support for terrorism. The MOU is supposed to have obtained some Qatari commitments on this score, but the exact terms are not known. It is easy to say what acceptable terms would be, however. The terms are acceptable if and only if they commit Qatar to opposing all terrorism, rather than allowing Qatar to retain certain favored terrorists. Some of the groups are favorites of Iran, like Hezbollah. The Qataris might wish to keep up good relations with Iran by allowing Hezbollah to continue to operate. There may be other groups whose terrorist activities Qatar would like to overlook in order to maintain what it considers to be a useful relationship.
That won’t do. All terrorist groups must be included. The 13 points contains a list of groups Qatar has worked with that should serve as a minimum rather than a maximum. No terror support of any kind is tolerable. We won’t know how good the deal is on this point until its terms are known. Secretary Tillerson at least sounds like he knows that this is important in his public statements. “The US has one goal: to drive terrorism off the face of the Earth,” Tillerson said, adding: “The president said every country has an absolute duty to make sure that terrorists find no sanctuary on their soil.” We as citizens can judge whether he truly understands based on whether he allowed Qatar to carve out exceptions for some of the groups it has been hosting and financing.
The second thing we must obtain is victory on breaking Qatari relations with Iran. Iran has been making a major play to become the dominant power in the region since obtaining a de facto alliance with Russia in 2015. This occurred immediately after the agreement to the “Iran Deal” on nuclear weapons, which gave Russia renewed confidence that Iran could be a major player on the world stage. Russia subsequently deployed military forces to Syria alongside Iran following meetings in Moscow between Russia’s military leadership and Iran’s top unconventional warfare leader, Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force.
This Russian-Iranian axis is seeking to peel Qatar off from the alliance represented by the blockading nations. Iran has been providing aid and support to Qatar during the blockade, as has Turkey. Turkey is a US NATO ally, but that nation has been trending toward the Russian axis as its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has slipped towards dictatorial rule. The moves accelerated following the abortive coup attempt against Erdoğan, which he blamed on an opposition movement hosted by the United States. Turkey’s role in supporting Qatar thus has to be read as a play at least friendly to the Russian/Iranian axis in the Middle East. If Qatar can be pulled the rest of the way in, so that it becomes aligned with Iran rather than the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran will have won a major strategic victory in its efforts to become the local hegemony.
Those are really the only two things that the United States needs from Qatar. If an American-backed deal obtains those two things, while also resolving the crisis with the blockading nations, it is a big win for the United States. Anything less than that is going to be harmful to American interests in small ways or large.