Trump backs Saudis, other nations on Qatar freeze out.
Tweet inserts U.S. in bitter Arab feud over terror links
President Trump injected the United States into a volatile crisis among America’s Middle East allies, siding strongly Tuesday with Saudi Arabia and other countries against Qatar in a dispute that threatens to disrupt efforts to defeat the Islamic State group and counter Iran.
In a series of early-morning tweets, Mr. Trump appeared to endorse the accusation that the small, gas-rich kingdom funds terrorist groups, a serious allegation against a strategic U.S. partner that hosts a base with some 10,000 American troops. He also sought to cast the antiQatar action led by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates as the result of his trip last month to Riyadh, where he pressed leaders from dozens of Arab and Muslim governments, including Qatar’s emir, to combat extremism.
Mr. Trump said he’d told the kings, presidents and prime ministers that funding “Radical Ideology” can’t be tolerated, and “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
“They said they would take a hard line on funding … extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” Mr. Trump tweeted, claiming his visit to Saudi Arabia was “already paying off.”
Later in the day, the White House revealed that Mr. Trump had spoken by phone with Saudi King Salman directly about Monday’s rupture.
“The two leaders discussed the critical goals of preventing the financing of terrorist organizations and eliminating the promotion of extremism by any nation in the region,” the White House said in its statement. “The president underscored that a united Gulf Cooperation Council is critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability.”
Some Arab states were already trying to contain the fallout from the crisis Tuesday. Kuwaiti and Turkish diplomats launched a drive to repair diplomatic and commercial ties between Qatar and its critics, which include Egypt and Bahrain. Qatar long has denied funding extremists, and its foreign minister struck a defiant tone in interviews, even after worried residents emptied grocery stores in its capital, Doha.
Qatar relies heavily on food imports, especially those coming over its only land border with Saudi Arabia, which joined with other key Arab powers Monday in cutting off land, sea and air routes into the country.
President Trump’s sharp critique of Doha pulled the administration directly into a conflict that American diplomats had hoped the bickering parties could resolve among themselves. The U.S. wasn’t planning a major mediation role, a State Department official said, and a Pentagon spokesman said only that U.S. military operations at the huge Qatari base were proceeding without interruption despite the bitter feud.
Some analysts fear the Saudi-led shunning could backfire, pushing Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey.
Qatar — a country smaller than Connecticut and the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas — now is facing severed diplomatic ties with its muchlarger neighbors, leading to suspended flights and regional ports closed to Qatari ships.
Qatar’s independent foreign policy has long stoked tensions with its Arab neighbors. The region’s Sunni Muslim states bristle at Qatar’s less-hostile position toward Shiite Iran and object to its backing groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology challenges the system of hereditary rule in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere.
For Mr. Trump, the rift has emerged as a key test of his goal to unite the region around destroying Islamic State and other extremist groups and containing Iranian influence. While he has even held out hopes that a communal effort could pave the way for Israeli-Arab rapprochement, the Qatar crisis serves as a reminder of the region’s many fault lines that challenge U.S. diplomacy.
While Mr. Trump also shares the Saudi and UAE goals of weakening hardline Islamic movements and stemming Iran’s influence, American officials hadn’t publicly singled out Qatar as a problem. Like earlier administrations, Mr. Trump’s had kept its concerns private while publicly praising Qatari efforts to stamp out terror financing.
“They have made progress,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday, while adding that “they and we recognize more work remains to be done.”
On Monday Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson encouraged the sides to “sit down together” to resolve irritants he said had “bubbled up” for some time. Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Tillerson took a studiously neutral approach to the quarrel.
It was unclear how Mr. Trump’s broadside against Qatar might affect the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State. The Pentagon relies heavily on Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to orchestrate air attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. And it is trying to galvanize the Arab world to assume greater responsibility in fighting Islamic State, something governments won’t be able to do if they’re consumed with internal spats.
“It’s a mixed bag with Qatar,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, summing up America’s strategic conundrum. “They have been definitely playing footsie with a lot of terrorist organizations, but we have a big air base there.”
But a prolonged crisis will put significant pressure on Qatar. Millions of migrant workers and expatriates live there, and much of Qatar’s food comes from Saudi Arabia across the peninsular nation’s only land border, which the Saudis have now closed.
President Trump sided with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries in a dispute against Qatar, which threatens to disrupt efforts to contain the Islamic State terror army. Mr. Trump indicated in tweets that oil-rich Qatar is funneling cash to terrorists.