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Qatar split raises problems for US with Iran, ISIS

Qatar split raises problems for US with Iran, ISIS
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National security experts are warning that the diplomatic split between Qatar and other Arab nations in the region may negatively affect the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates announced Monday that they were cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar.

The decision closes all land, air and sea borders with the country within 24 hours, a decision they say is based on its support for extremist groups and its relations with Iran.

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Yemen, the Maldives and Libya's eastern-based government joined later the diplomatic break with Qatar, which also backs the Al-Jazeera network, later in the day.

U.S. officials have downplayed the dispute, but outside observers say the breakdown in diplomacy in and of itself could push Qatar, home to a large U.S. military presence, closer to Iran.

“We need to figure out is this a blip in inter-Arab relations or whether this pushes Qatar further into Iran's orbit,” said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation.

“This is either a wakeup call for Qatar and it's going to bring Qatar back into the fold or it's a fundamental shift in how the Arabs engage with each other which should be very very alarming for the United States.”

Qatar and Iran already share a gas field in the Persian Gulf.

Henri Barkey, director of The Middle East Program at The Wilson Center, said the issues between Qatar and the other countries could be a “major problem” for the United States.

For one, he said, it complicates efforts in the anti-ISIS fight, which is largely being run out of the U.S. base in Doha, Qatar.

“Although the Saudis and others will not interfere, it will make for complicated relations,” he said in a statement.

Since the split happened so shortly after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump renews attacks against Tester over VA nominee on eve of Montana rally Trump submits 2017 federal income tax returns Corker: Trump administration 'clamped down' on Saudi intel, canceled briefing MORE’s visit to the region, Barkey said it also shows “how superficial his achievements were.”

“This will complicate regional politics in ways that are yet unforeseen as the Turks, Russians and certainly the Iranians will step into the fray creating new dynamics and new possibilities that are unlikely to benefit Washington,” Barkey added.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' Joint Chiefs chairman to meet with Saudi counterpart Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' despite 'Democrat' remark MORE said he doesn’t believe the rift will affect the ISIS fight, and the issue will “resolve itself.”

“I am positive there will be no implications coming out of this dramatic situation at all, and I say that based on the commitment that each of these nations that you just referred to have made to this fight,” Mattis told reporters in Australia on Monday.

The United States has about 8,000 to 10,000 troops at Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar’s capital. The base is the Unites States’ largest in the Middle East, the forward headquarters of Central Command and the staging area for much of the war against ISIS.

Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told The Hill that U.S. military aircraft continue to conduct missions out of Udeid Air Base in support of ongoing operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and that the Defense Department has “no plans to change our posture in Qatar.”

“The United States and the Coalition are grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security,” Pahon said. “We encourage all our partners in the region to reduce tensions and work towards common solutions that enable regional security."

But Coffey said he believes U.S. officials are downplaying the extent to which the dispute will affect U.S. actions in the region.

And Gerald Feierstein, director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute, said it’s possible Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia, in which he called on regional players to take a strong stand against terrorism, could have been a factor in the break.

“A lot of people are asking themselves whether this very strong speech that Trump gave that said they all have to join forces against Iran and extremism, whether that was interpreted as a green light” to target Qatar, he said.

Iran on Monday blamed Trump's visit.

“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance,” Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, wrote on Twitter.

Aboutalebi was referring to Trump's participation in a traditional dance with the Saudi king at the meeting.

Coffey said he doesn’t believe the dispute was a direct result of Trump’s visit, but the new president did play an indirect role.

“You have this new found confidence in the United States now, rightly or wrongly, that America is serious about ISIS, it's serious about the Muslim Brotherhood, it's serious about Iran,” Coffey said. “I think countries like the Saudi Arabia and the UAE feel more confident to act bold . . .that the U.S. and President Trump in particular shares their concerns.”

Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters she was not aware as to whether Trump was given any word the diplomatic split would happen.

“The president's committed to continuing to have conversations with all of the people involved in the process with all of those countries,” she said. “We want to continue to de-escalate that and at this point we're continuing to work with each of those partners.”

Monday’s split is the continuation of a long-running dispute between the countries that appears to be taking a “nastier tinge,” Feierstein said.

In the past, Oman and Kuwait have been able to mediate, but so far Kuwait’s efforts this time appear not have had an effect, at least “in the short term,” he added.

In 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar over its backing of the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi it took nine months before the dispute was settled.

Feierstein said he does not foresee operations at the U.S. air base in Qatar being interrupted by the dispute.

But, he said, the United States efforts to build a regional coalition against terrorism will be hindered. To what extent, though, depends on how long the rift lasts and in what ways it’s resolved, he said.

“It’d be very speculative now to try to figure it out,” he said of how much the dispute will affect U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

David Ottaway, Middle East fellow at the Wilson Center, also questioned how Central Command can effectively fight terrorism amid the spat.

“Qatar is extremely important logistically to the U.S. Central Command as both its forward command center and main regional airbase are located there,” he said in a statement. “One wonders how Centcom will be able straddle this divide among its main Arab partners in the Gulf while working to protect all of them."

Coffey also noted a practical concern from the severed ties — the airbase’s food supply.  Qatar, a peninsula that shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia, relies heavily on its neighbor for imported products.

“You need a lot of food and a lot of everything else to keep a base that size going,” he said. “A lot of it is sourced regionally from countries. If they can no longer ship this stuff in it's going to create a problem. That's more of a practical concern, which can be overcome, but it certainly needs to be addressed.”