The Qatari Crisis and the Fight Against ISIS

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an air, land, and sea blockade against the tiny Gulf nation. Shortly thereafter, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, the Maldives, the Hadi government in Yemen, and the Haftar government in Libya followed suit, joining the Saudi-led bloc against Qatar. Despite the fact that tensions have been simmering for many years amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the escalation comes a few weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump completed his first foreign trip to the Riyadh Summit, where his main priority was to promote a unified Arab front against the Islamic State (ISIS). In actuality, Trump’s unifying message has spurred the opposite reaction, as the Gulf is now more divided than ever. All the countries involved in the political crisis are strategic members of the U.S. led coalition against ISIS. Most importantly, Qatar is home to the U.S. Al-Udeid air base from which the coalition cooperatively launches airstrikes against the Islamic State. The anti-ISIS coalition infighting will likely have significant adverse effects on the fight against the extremist group.

Background of the Political Crisis

The tensions between Qatar and its neighboring countries deteriorated and resulted in the blockade when Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamid al-Thani, allegedly made public remarks promoting improved ties with Iran. Qatar quickly denounced the remarks as false, and asserted that the Qatar News Agency, where the remarks were posted had been hacked.[1] The Saudi-led front claims that the blockade and severance of ties is due to Qatar’s seemingly positive ties with Iran, and its alleged support of terrorist organizations in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.[2] In response, Qatar stated that the blockade is “unjustified” and based on “baseless and unfounded allegations.”[3]

Qatar does maintain a relationship with Iran, as the two countries jointly manage one of the world’s largest gas fields.[4] And it is true that Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood.  However, claiming that Qatar supports terrorist organizations because of its support to the Muslim Brotherhood is complicated by the fact that all of the GCC countries classify terrorist organizations differently. For example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, since they perceive the group’s political Islam ideology as a threat to their rule.

Complicating matters further, White House Cabinet officials and President Trump have released conflicting statements throughout the crisis. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have both urged all parties in the Gulf to engage in a dialogue and stated that the crisis would not affect the coalition’s efforts against ISIS.[5] Shortly thereafter, President Trump contradicted his cabinet members by tweeting support of the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, and later denounced Qatar as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”[6] This is problematic as Qatar hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command at the Al-Udeid Air Base, a combined air operations and intelligence center that is home to around 10,000 American service members. The air base is of strategic importance, as many operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are launched from Al-Udeid with the help of the GCC members. Despite the contradiction of statements, the Pentagon approved a deal to sell Qatar $12 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets the following week.[7]

On June 19, 2017, Qatar stated that it will not negotiate with its neighbors until the blockade is lifted .[8] The UAE stated that the isolation of Qatar could last for years unless Doha accepts a list of demands from the Saudi-bloc.[9] A 13-point list of demands was put forward by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain to Qatar on June 23 with a deadline of 10 days to comply with all the demands.[10] Some of the demands include scaling back the country’s relationship with Iran, shutting down the news station of Al Jazeera, and severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations. Soon after, Secretary Tillerson released a statement that some of the demands will be difficult for Qatar to meet but he encouraged steps towards creating a dialogue to resolve the crisis.[11] The political crisis is continuing longer than many expected, as neither side wants to compromise

Divided Front Against ISIS

The infighting of the anti-ISIS coalition, illustrated by the Qatari crisis, will negatively impact the fight against the extremist group. Currently, the coalition’s fight against ISIS is at the height of efforts to retake Mosul and the beginning stages of operations to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de-facto capital. The U.S. efforts to build a unified front based on regional cooperation has been undermined by the crisis, which instead portrays the deep disunity of its members. A main goal of ISIS is to generate divisions amongst its enemies, creating an us versus them mentality. The Qatari crisis shows ISIS that the coalition is distracted by ideological and political issues rather than focusing on the common goal to defeating ISIS.

If the blockade continues, the location of the Al-Udeid air base in Qatar will become problematic. Within the base, all GCC members work together during the coalition’s operations against the terrorist group. This cooperation could change if the Saudi-led bloc decides not to allow its military members to travel to the base in Qatar. If the air base were to be relocated to another location in the Gulf, it would become a massive undertaking, disrupting the current counter-terrorism operations in the region. On June 18, 2017, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that the efforts against ISIS from Qatar were continuing, “while acknowledging some friction”[12]. In the short term, the coalition’s operations will not be affected, but a long-term crisis could impact the effectiveness of the coalition.

The sectarian nature of the Qatari political crisis helps ISIS by testing the ability of the coalition to work together. When members of the coalition paint the Middle East in black and white terms of good and evil (Saudi versus Iran), the coalition is furthering the sectarian divisions that are at the basis of the extremist group’s fundamental thinking. The disunity amongst the anti-ISIS coalition promotes the sectarian mentality that ISIS promotes throughout the region. The widening of sectarian divisions creates a highly polarized region less able to coordinate against security challenges. Achieving security is not possible without regional cooperation, despite internal differences.

Twin Terror Attacks in Tehran During the Qatari Crisis

On June 7, 2017 two simultaneous terrorist attacks occurred in Tehran, one at the Iranian Parliament and a second at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. These attacks killed 17 people and wounded 50 others.[13] ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were the first attacks by the group within Iran and within a Shiite-majority country. Iran has been actively supporting the anti-ISIS coalition through the Iraqi military and Shi’a militias in Mosul. The timing of the attacks, coinciding with the Qatari crisis, is highly significant and problematic as tensions in the region are elevated. Despite ISIS claiming responsibility, Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of being behind the attack.[14] The attack is furthering the sectarian divide and disunity that is playing out amongst the members of the anti-ISIS coalition. ISIS’ strategic use of these terror attacks during a time of escalated tensions has caused the coalition to further divide and distrust one another.

The Way Forward

The Qatari political crisis has distracted the coalition from its common goal of defeating the Islamic State. The continuing blockade is a lose-lose situation for all parties and does nothing to further the fight against ISIS. A long term blockade will only lead to vast regional security challenges during a critical juncture in the fight against ISIS.

All parties to the crisis must realize that the common goal of defeating ISIS can bring them together, despite their differences and other priorities. To ensure regional cooperation, the coalition needs increased dialogue amongst its members, in order to remain focused and avoid political distractions. The Gulf nations must reflect on why the current situation has come to such drastic measures as a blockade, and they must devise diplomatic solutions so that an escalation of tensions does not reoccur. The common goal of defeating and defunding the Islamic State should be a reason all parties come to the table. The region is already fragile and pointing fingers within the coalition will not solve the ISIS threat.


About the Author:

Renee Coulouris is a Gender and Global Security Program Assistant at WIIS Global. Currently, she is a Master of Arts Candidate at Johns Hopkins University studying Global Security Studies, concentrating on security issues of the Middle East and North Africa and countering violent extremism.

Contact Renee Coulouris by email at: [email protected]