Saudi Arabia and its allies have turned on Qatar, and until Wednesday, President Trump’s Twitter fingers were working overtime to pile on and even claim credit for the effort to turn the diminutive but wildly wealthy Gulf state into a pariah.
Perhaps recognizing what the U.S. has at stake in Qatar – hundreds of millions of dollars invested in maintaining America’s most important military installation in the Middle East – Trump Wednesday told the Emir of Qatar that he was willing to help solve the crisis, according to the Qatari news service Al Jazeera.
And The Hill said on Wednesday afternoon that the president called the Emir and invited him to a meeting at the White House to work on resolving the diplomatic standoff.
Trump’s wading into a situation fraught with religious and regional animosity might not have been the best policy even if there were no other considerations. Qatar is the home of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees American military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also the site of a massive U.S. air-war facility, Al Udeid Air Base – built by Doha in the 1990s a cost of about $1 billion — and an important center for American intelligence.
Some 11,000 U.S. troops are stationed at Al Udeid, along with over 100 aircraft such as B-52 Stratofortresses, KC-135 Stratotankers and E-8 JSTARS, according to the Military Times.
The base, which has one of the longest runways in the region, is also home to the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), which runs the air war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. According to its website, CAOC, “provides the command and control of airpower throughout 20 nations stretching from Northeast Africa across the Middle East to Central and South Asia.”
The Udeid base has been the staging point for airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. In May, aircraft controlled by CAOC “released nearly 4,400 weapons against a variety of ISIS targets, a 33 percent increase from April and the highest release month since the inception of OIR in August 2014,” its website says. OIR refers to Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against the Islamic State.
CAOC describes its operations center, which cost about $60 million, as looking like something out of a “futuristic movie,” with “hundreds of people, working in satellite communications, imagery analysis, network design, computer programming, radio systems, systems administration and many other fields.”
Some 67 miles of high-capacity and fiber-optic cable link “thousands of computers, dozens of servers and racks of video equipment and display screens.”
So it’s little wonder that the military was unnerved when Trump shot out a series of tweets such as: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
Tensions between the Saudi coalition, especially the United Arab Emirates, and Oatar have been simmering for years over Doha’s permissiveness – women can drive and foreigners can drink – and its ties to Iran, with which it shares vast natural gas reserves. More important, Qatar has been accused of supporting Islamic radical groups in Syria and Libya and backing the Muslim Brotherhood.
The current flashpoint appears to be a story – decried as fake news by Doha – in which Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying: “There is no reason behind Arabs’ hostility to Iran.”
That caused the Saudis to deny Qatari flights the right to enter its air space, close its border and ban ships bound for Qatar from passing through its waters. Also cutting diplomatic ties were Egypt and two other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (which includes Qatar), Bahrain and the UAE. Other nearby nations -- Yemen, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives and Libya -- have suspended diplomatic relations.
The situation took an even more dire turn on Wednesday when the Turkish Parliament signed off on a plan by President Tayyip Erdogan to deploy troops to Qatar in support of the ruling family. Turkey already has its own military installation there.
Reuters reported on Wednesday afternoon that the UAE Attorney General was threatening jail time for those sympathizing with Qatar. "Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form," Hamad Saif al-Shamsi was quoted as saying.
Getting in the middle of a row between Gulf states doesn’t seem to have a lot of upside for the U.S.
Rand Corporation analyst Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East specialist, told Military Times that "The Saudis and the Emiratis, the Bahrainis, the Egyptians, they’re going to prevail, and I don’t think the U.S. needs to add further weight to this. It’s really unwise to weigh in on this intra-GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] rift and take sides.”
The president’s tweets also put the Pentagon in the awkward position of having to reassure a major Mideast host even as the commander-in-chief denigrates it.
"We continue to be grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support for our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security," a Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday.
Complicating matters further, reports surfaced accusing Russian hackers of planting the so-called fake news story that set off the fireworks.