By Julian Pecquet - 04/06/13 05:48 PM EDT
President Obama will meet with Qatar's leader later this month amid rising concerns that the oil-rich Gulf State is supplying weapons to Islamist militants in Syria who could one day use them against U.S. interests.
The White House and State Department have refrained from publicly criticizing the putative U.S. ally, which helped topple Moamar Gadhafi two years ago and is now hosting peace talks with the Taliban.
Lawmakers in Congress have no such compunctions.
“We've got a problem with Libya. We've got a problem here,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) told The Hill. “The U.S. is talking to the Qataris, but at this point they're out of step with the international community and with other Middle Eastern governments.”
The reports have only emboldened those members of Congress who oppose sending U.S. arms to Syria.
“The rebels cannot be fully vetted,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), “and arming them could have unintended consequences as the stability of the region lies in the balance.”
Obama will meet with Amir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani at the White House on April 16, the White House announced Friday. The official announcement was succinct, but the two-year-old civil war in Syria – and Qatar's role in it – are expected to come up.
“The United States and Qatar have a strong bilateral relationship, reflecting our close defense partnership, expanding commercial ties, and many other areas of cooperation,” the White House said.
“The United States is firmly committed to continuing to deepen our consultations with Qatar on the many important developments in the region. The President looks forward to a broad discussion with the Amir on a range of mutual interests and regional issues to further strengthen our bilateral partnership,” the White House said.
The administration had little to say on the record about reports that Qatari arms are flowing to Islamists. The country was also accused of arming Islamist hardliners in Libya, although no Qatari weapons have been traced back to the attackers who killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. mission in Benghazi last year.
“We’ve seen these reports and can neither confirm nor deny their details,” a State Department official told The Hill. “We continually consult with allies and like-minded partners on how we can accelerate a political transition, but we’re not going to get into the details of diplomatic discussions.”
A White House official put in more bluntly: “I don’t have anything for you on this.”
The concerns are only set to grow as the violence escalates in Syria, where more than 70,000 people have already been killed.
Last month, Qatar pushed a resolution recognizing the right of Arab League states to arm the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad. The Arab League summit, held in the Qatari capital of Doha, also formally handed over Assad's seat to the opposition.
“Each member state of the Arab League has the right to supply defensive means as it so wishes – including military defense – to support the resistance of the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army,” the resolution states.
The Syrian state news agency SANA responded by calling Qatar “the biggest bank for supporting terrorism in the region.”
Qatar joined only 22 other countries last week in abstaining from a UN arms trade treaty that would require exporting countries to certify that their weapons aren't likely to be used to harm civilians or commit human rights violations. The treaty received overwhelming support, with 154 nations – including the United States – voting in favor.