Secretary of State Rex Tillerson launched an invigorated mission in Kuwait on Monday to defuse a crisis between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors that has so far defied U.S. diplomatic efforts and threatened the region’s delicate stability.
Qatar is locked in a bitter confrontation with a Saudi-led group of Arab states over the tiny, gas-rich emirate’s ties to Iran and supposed friendliness with a number of militant groups. All of the countries involved are important U.S. allies, making the fight particularly tricky for the White House, which has sided with the Saudi-led coalition.
Qatar is home to the United States’ largest military base in the Middle East and about 11,000 American troops. Tillerson has said the prolonged dispute could hurt U.S. counter-terrorism operations that are based out of Qatar.
Tillerson unexpectedly added the trip to the Gulf region after his swing through Hamburg, Germany, for the Group of 20 summit, and then Kiev, Ukraine, and Istanbul, Turkey.
He is resorting to shuttle diplomacy, hopscotching among the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, after more than a month of Washington meetings, telephone calls and angry ultimatums — plus contradictory messages from the White House — have failed to push the sides any closer to negotiation. The crisis is at an impasse, Tillerson acknowledged.
“We are trying to solve an issue that concerns not just us but the entire world,” Kuwait’s emir, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, said as he greeted Tillerson on Monday night.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have suspended diplomatic ties with Qatar and blockaded it by sealing sea and land borders and banning flights from its airspace. Tillerson called for a lifting of the blockade, but President Trump seemed to contradict him and accused Qatar on several occasions of being a major financer of terrorism, while lavishing praise on Saudi Arabia.
The four countries issued a 13-point ultimatum to Qatar, which the country’s emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, resolutely rejected. Demands included shutting down the Arab world’s premier television news network, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which is often critical of the region’s autocrats, and reducing relations with Qatar’s neighbor, Iran. The Shiite-led nation is a despised rival of most of the Sunni-dominated Gulf states.
The Saudis and their allies are threatening additional punitive actions against Qatar.
U.S. diplomats are alarmed at the escalation and have urged Tillerson to take more forceful action, something he was resisting until now.
The trip now “is to explore the art of the possible” in hopes of finding a solution, Tillerson advisor R.C. Hammond said, according to the pool report filed by the two U.S. journalists who were allowed to accompany the secretary on his flight.
Hammond acknowledged, however, that Tillerson’s efforts, as well as those of the Kuwaitis, who are serving as mediators, have not produced results.
“One inning of baseball, score is zero-zero; we haven’t got anywhere,” Hammond said. “Or one half of football and it’s nil-nil.”
Washington’s handling of the crisis, which could threaten to spiral into open hostilities in what has been one of the most stable parts of the Middle East, reflects disarray within the Trump administration and the failure of the State Department under Tillerson to fill key leadership positions with seasoned diplomats who could help craft a more coherent and effective policy.
Hammond did not dispute that portrayal, but he also insisted that Tillerson’s more active role did not amount to mediation.
“The president has said — this is not a new instruction -- find a resolution,” Hammond said. “Our job here is to keep people communicating and talking to each other.”
Trump’s overarching goal is to unite Arab countries in the fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism. Trump and the countries came together in that spirit at a summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May, but days later Saudi Arabia lashed out at Qatar, and unity was shattered. Some diplomats believe the Saudis felt they had a green light from Trump because of the effusive way he praised them and ignored the conservative kingdom’s dire human rights record.
“The secretary of State is being dispatched to find a resolution because we need to get back to what we were doing in Riyadh,” Hammond said.
Trump and the Saudis accuse Qatar of funding organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt, and of being too close to Iran. Qatar counters that it has to have ties with Iran because the two countries share a vast gas field, and says its sympathy for the Arab Spring reform movement against the region’s autocrats — like the Saudis and in Egypt — is the true source of the discord.
Critics of Trump’s decision to so enthusiastically embrace the Saudis say it ignores that country’s past tolerance of terrorist groups.
Hammond conceded that the 13 demands that the Saudi-led coalition made of Qatar were not “viable” as a package, but that some components “could work.” He did not elaborate, but said Qatar’s foes would also have to meet conditions.
“This is a two-way street,” he said. “There are no clean hands.”
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