No One Wins the Fight Over Qatar.

The diplomatic row between Qatar and seven mostly Sunni Arab countries is being called a stumbling block for U.S. efforts to promote a united front against Islamic extremism in the region. But it won’t be – because it is not in any country’s interest for the rift to become permanent.

This week’s move against Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and later the Maldives, took the United States by surprise, coming as it did on the heels of President Donald Trump’s successful visit to the region. The Saudi state news agency released a statement that “[Qatar] embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Isis and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly.” Riyadh gave Kuwaiti intermediaries a list of demands to resolve the dispute, including that Qatar cut ties with various terror groups (including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood) and rein in the Doha-sponsored Al Jazeera network.

This is not the first such dispute between Qatar and its neighbors, especially with Saudi Arabia; the two countries have had a rocky relationship for decades. In 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain accused Doha of failing to uphold a 2013 Gulf Cooperation Council security agreement by giving sanctuary to the terror-connected Muslim Brotherhood (then recently ousted from power in Egypt), and giving support to “hostile media,” again, the free-spirited Al Jazeera. This break in relations lasted eight months and was settled when Qatar expelled the Muslim Brotherhood and closed the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo.

Some have pointed to Trump’s recent trip as the cause of this most recent break in relations. Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted that “What is happening is the preliminary result of the [ceremonial] sword dance” that Trump participated in during his visit to Riyadh. The White House has shown support for the move, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that he hopes that the dispute can be resolved through dialogue.

There is something of a “pot calling the kettle black” flavor to the dispute; private citizens in many countries in the region support radical groups directly or indirectly. And Qatar’s relatively good relations with groups the United States identifies as terrorist organizations have practical benefits. An anonymous U.S. official noted that, “There’s got to be a place for us to meet the Taliban. The Hamas (folks) have to have a place to go where they can be simultaneously isolated and talked to.”

The United States and Qatar have a long-standing relationship that is unlikely to be disrupted by this diplomatic row. U.S. Central Command maintains its forward headquarters outside Doha at al-Udeid air base, host to around 11,000 U.S. and coalition personnel. Al Udeid is the center for conducting operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility. It is also the only airfield in the region equipped for B-52 bombers. The U.S. has no interest in disrupting this working relationship, and Qatar would never unilaterally banish CENTCOM, since the presence of al-Udeid serves as a key deterrent from neighboring states for taking military action against Doha.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Thursday that his country was open to a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but that his country “will never be ready to surrender the independence of our foreign policy.” As in 2014, Qatar may be forced to make some concessions to bring its policies more in line with its neighbors, since it would suffer from protracted regional economic isolation.

But the most important point for all parties to the dispute is to recognize that they share common interests with the United States in opposing violent extremism, and in countering the spread of Iran’s influence. This interest-based framework gives the U.S. an opportunity to play an important leadership role in resolving the dispute, serving as an honest broker between the two sides. Hopefully, matters can be resolved more quickly than they were in 2014, but in any case the temporary break in relations will not likely have a substantive impact on coalition operations against the Islamic State group or blocking Iranian expansionism.

By James S. Robbins

Isha Ku Hay Allgalgaduud Media

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