Qatar: A double agent in war on terror

By Ilan Berman for USA Today

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Emir of Qatar Tamim al-Thani, center. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Just weeks after the President Trump’s inaugural tour of the Middle East, which included significant pressure on the Arab Gulf states to build a regional security architecture to combat the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) and counterbalance Iran, the prospects for such a construct appear more distant than ever, at least at first glance. Over the weekend, five separate Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain—all formally severed their diplomatic ties to the Emirate of Qatar over the latter’s support of Islamic extremism in various forms.

Such support isn’t new, of course. Qatar has a long played a duplicitous role in the global “war on terror.” The oil-rich Gulf kingdom has served for years as a key logistics hub for the U.S. and coalition military forces — first in the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11, then in the subsequent war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and currently in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Simultaneously, however, the Qatari crown has emerged as a major backer of a bevvy of radical groups. The list includes the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as well as Afghanistan’s Taliban and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, all of which are known to have received support from the emirate.

At the same time, and in contrast with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Doha has cultivated cozy political and trade ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran. (Indeed, this weekend’s row was precipitated in no small part by recent comments attributed to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani counseling regional states to drop their opposition and embrace the idea of détente with Iran’s ayatollahs.)

Until now, this duality had been quietly tolerated — if not duplicated — by the region’s other states. No longer, it seems. The recent diplomatic move against Qatar — which includes a suspension of travel to the kingdom, as well as a call for Arab businesses to review their contacts and contracts there – smacks of a coordinated bid to ratchet up the costs of Doha’s rogue behavior.

There are signs that it is already beginning to do so. Doha, now on the defensive, has begun to change its historically cavalier attitude toward Hamas. In recent days, it ousted a number of high-ranking officials from the Palestinian terror group from its territory, where they had long operated with impunity. More such moves may also be in the offing, as Qatari officials scramble to mend badly frayed fences with their regional neighbors.

What does all this mean for Washington? At first blush, the Arab-Qatari rift appears to be bad news for the Trump administration’s dreams of a regional coalition against Iran and ISIS. But the current pressure on Qatar could actually end up being a blessing in disguise. Alliances, after all, are only as strong as their weakest links, and a regional partnership in which one of the members simultaneously aids and abets the very forces the bloc is fighting is bound to be a rickety one indeed.

Naturally, administration officials are now scrambling to mediate the Arab-Qatari tensions in an effort to get their Mideast policy back on track. But the White House may not want to be so eager to defuse the current crisis after all, if the pressure now being applied by Saudi Arabia and its partners ends up compelling Doha to take on a more consistent and constructive role in regional counterterrorism.

If it does, Qatar will become a much more reliable strategic partner for the United States and its regional allies. If it doesn’t, isolating the emirate could help limit the threat to stability posed by the groups that it actively supports and bankrolls. Either way, Qatar’s neighbors clearly have Doha’s number.

Ilan Berman is senior vice president at the American Foreign Policy Council.