Cru­cial U.S. air base con­tin­ues op­er­at­ing in iso­lated Qatar

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ AND LAURA KELLY

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials in­sisted Mon­day that the clash be­tween Qatar and its Arab neigh­bors will not af­fect op­er­a­tions at Al Udeid air base, but the row raised the prospect that the U.S. could be forced to re­lo­cate or scale back its main re­gional hub for the air war against the Is­lamic State and the de facto Mid­dle East op­er­a­tional cen­ter for U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand.

De­fense Depart­ment of­fi­cials were still as­sess­ing the fall­out from Mon­day’s de­ci­sion by sev­eral Arab coun­tries, led by Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt, to break diplo­matic ties with Qatar over

the coun­try’s close ties to the Mus­lim Brother­hood and Iran, a rift in the united front against Tehran and ji­hadi groups Mr. Trump has tried to pro­mote.

“Our mis­sions out of Al Udeid Air Base are con­tin­u­ing and have not been im­pacted,” Pen­tagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.

The break has been made as mil­i­tary cam­paigns are near­ing the fi­nal stages to oust Is­lamic State fight­ers from Mo­sul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the ter­ror­ist group’s last ma­jor strongholds.

Those cam­paigns were mov­ing for­ward Mon­day, but there was a gen­eral con­cern in­side the Pen­tagon over fur­ther po­lar­iza­tion in the Mid­dle East. Kuwait and Oman were the only mem­bers of the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil to main­tain diplo­matic ties with Doha.

“We en­cour­age our Gulf part­ners to stay uni­fied and fo­cused on shared threats,” Capt. Davis said, adding that re­gional unity also acts as a crit­i­cal bul­wark against ex­pand­ing Ira­nian in­flu­ence. In ad­di­tion to cut­ting diplo­matic re­la­tions, the Saudis and oth­ers cut trans­port and flight links to Qatar and im­posed ex­port re­stric­tions — all of which could present lo­gis­ti­cal headaches for the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence.

Aside from be­ing Cen­tral Com­mand’s Mid­dle East head­quar­ters, the sprawl­ing air base is the nerve cen­ter for air cam­paigns in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and at least 17 other na­tions, the Air Force said. It is also home to one of the Air Force’s largest units: the 379th Air Ex­pe­di­tion Wing, tasked with com­bat sup­port op­er­a­tions for U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

In April, the U.S. de­liv­ered B-52 heavy bombers to the Al Udeid base for the first time in nearly a decade to sup­port op­er­a­tions against the Is­lamic State.

Maj. Adrian J.T. Rank­ine-Gal­loway said in a state­ment Mon­day that U.S. mil­i­tary air­craft con­tinue to fly mis­sions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria de­spite the rift.

De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis, speak­ing to re­porters on a visit to Aus­tralia, pre­dicted that the diplo­matic im­passe would re­solve it­self and placed much of the blame on Iran.

“I be­lieve Iran’s ac­tions speak louder than any­one’s words, and they are go­ing to in­cite the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in that re­gion to try to block” what he said were Tehran’s ef­forts in places such as Syria and Yemen to desta­bi­lize the re­gion.

“The diplo­matic sit­u­a­tion will prob­a­bly take some time — I don’t know how long — but it will be re­solved,” Mr. Mat­tis said.

Former De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates said in an ad­dress last month that Qatar was a clear out­lier among the Gulf Arab states by keep­ing its ties open to Iran and groups such as the Mus­lim Brother­hood.

“I can’t think of other coun­tries in the re­gion where that wel­come mat con­tin­ues to be in place in the same way,” Mr. Gates said in a May 23 speech at a con­fer­ence or­ga­nized by the Foun­da­tion for the De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

To Mr. Gates, those ties are part of Qatar’s ef­forts, sur­rounded by much big­ger pow­ers, to wield in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East be­yond its size and re­sources.

“Qatar wants an im­por­tant place on the world stage, and they want an im­por­tant place in the re­gion,” he said at the time. “They want to have a re­la­tion­ship with every­body so that they can ma­neu­ver and, I think, play this role on the world stage that is the con­trast dra­mat­i­cally with the size of their coun­try.”

That plan may be back­fir­ing as Doha finds it­self iso­lated from the ma­jor­ity of the Arab world. Iran blamed Pres­i­dent Trump’s show of sol­i­dar­ity with Riyadh dur­ing a re­cent trip to the re­gion for set­ting off Mon­day’s chain of events to­ward Qatar. Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Ara­bia was his first over­seas since tak­ing of­fice in Jan­uary.

Of­fi­cials at Cen­tral Com­mand have not pub­licly laid out any al­ter­na­tive plans for mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions at Al Udeid should re­gional un­rest fo­cus­ing on Qatar worsen or if the on­go­ing diplo­matic feud could af­fect U.S.-led mis­sions in Kuwait, Bahrain or else­where in the Mid­dle East.

Congress threat­ened to re­lo­cate the Navy’s 5th Fleet from its base in Bahrain in 2015 over the king­dom’s al­leged po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion of its Shi­ite pop­u­la­tion. When asked if any con­tin­gency plans were in place for Al Udeid, Capt. Davis replied: “We have con­tin­gency plans for ev­ery­thing.”

Al Udeid opened in 2003, but its lo­ca­tion was kept se­cret un­til De­cem­ber 2013 when De­fense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel dis­closed it. His de­ci­sion was driven in part by a de­sire to re­as­sure al­lies and re­in­force Amer­ica’s en­gage­ment in the re­gion, said re­ports at the time.

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