The US and Qatar have signed a memorandum of understanding on fighting terrorism that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said might help resolve the worst diplomatic crisis to shake the Gulf Arab states in decades.
“I’m hopeful we can make some progress to bring this to a point of resolution,” Tillerson said during a joint news conference in Doha with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani.
Tillerson traveled to the Middle East to try to resolve the stand-off between Qatar and other Persian Gulf nations, who have accused their oil-rich neighbor of supporting terrorism.
At its core, the dispute reflects long-standing Gulf frustration with Qatar’s independent foreign policy, including its support for Islamist groups and its ties to Iran, with which Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field.
The regional family feud threatens to undermine a central foreign policy goal of the Trump administration: all the Gulf countries involved in the dispute are members of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS, with Qatar playing perhaps the most prominent role. It is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East where flights against the terrorist group are coordinated.
“I think Qatar has been quite clear in its positions and I think very reasonable and we want to talk now (about) how do we take things forward,” Tillerson said. “That’s my purpose in coming.” The top US diplomat added that he was there as “a friend to the region.”
Work on the memorandum of understanding has been underway for as long as a year, Tillerson said. It lays out a series of steps the two countries will take over the coming months and years “to interrupt, disable terror financing flows and intensify counterrrorism activities globally,” he said.
The agreement includes milestones to ensure both countries are accountable to their commitments. “Together, the US and Qatar will do more to track down funding sources, collaborate and share information and do more to keep the region and our homeland safe,” Tillerson said.
He said he applauded Qatar’s emir for being “the first to respond to President Trump’s challenge” at a May summit in Saudi Arabia to stop the funding of terrorism.
News of the memorandum of understanding comes as Qatari officials are pushing back against the campaign led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The Gulf nations have been joined by Yemen, the Maldives and the government based in eastern Libya.
The Gulf countries have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, closed their airspace to its airline, banned their citizens from travelling to or residing in Qatar and gave Qatari citizens 14 days to leave their countries after the decision was announced June 5.
The measures are serious human rights violations, Ali bin Smaikh al-Marri, head of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, told reporters in Washington. Al-Marri, who visited the State Department to press Qatar’s case, points to families that have been separated, and people whose jobs, studies and lives have been abruptly suspended.
“We’re facing a new Berlin Wall,” al-Marri said. “Every house in Qatar, every family in Qatar, they have relatives in the UAE, in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain.”
He pointed out that the impact is felt by citizens of the other Gulf nations as well — 11,300 of whom had been living in Qatar until diplomatic ties were severed. “We cannot use civilians in conflict,” al-Marri said, pointing out that ordinary people are bearing the the brunt of the Gulf action.
Gulf officials have said the restrictions will stay in place until Qatar meets a series of demands, including severing all ties with Iran and “terrorist” groups, shutting down the Qatari media organization Al Jazeera, and aligning its foreign, military and political policies with its neighbors.
Later on Tuesday the four countries leading the boycott released a joint statement saying the sanctions on Qatar will continue until the “just and full demands that will ensure that terrorism is addressed and stability and security are established in the region.” The Statement also thanked the US for its “efforts” in the “fight against terrorism and its financing.”
The Gulf spat is not helping efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told reporters Tuesday.
“The tensions in the Gulf certainly are concerning,” de Mistura said in Geneva. “We … hope that those tensions will be finding a proper solution because they do obviously not help the progress of the fighting in Syria, or stop the fighting in Syria. Anything which adds tensions complicates it.”
Tillerson’s stop in Doha comes after Monday meetings in Turkey, which is allied with Qatar in the dispute, and Kuwait, which is playing a mediator role.
The top US diplomat travels next to Saudi Arabia as part of his trip through the region. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that Tillerson will meet with the four countries leading the boycott while he is in Saudi Arabia.
Tillerson also met with Kuwait’s acting Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah as well as British National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill in Kuwait Monday. The three countries issued a joint statement expressing concern and calling for a rapid end to the crisis through dialogue, according to Kuwait state media.
According to R.C. Hammond, a State Department spokesman, the purpose of Tillerson’s trip has been “to explore the art of the possible of where a resolution can be found,” and the US was “looking for areas of common ground where a resolution can stand.”
“We’ve had one round of exchanges and dialogue and didn’t advance the ball,” Hammond told reporters on Monday. “We will work with Kuwait and see if we can hash out a different strategy. … This is a two-way street. There are no clean hands.”
President Donald Trump also spoke last week to the leaders of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
When the Gulf countries first cut ties with Qatar, however, Trump appeared to support the Gulf countries decision, saying that Doha had to stop funding terrorism. Trump’s comments came following his visit to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president, and contradicted his secretary of state.