WASHINGTON ― In a tweet posted early Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump congratulated U.S.-backed forces fighting the Islamic State. His tweet seemed well-timed: The anti-ISIS coalition earlier this week recaptured Mosul, the largest city ever controlled by the self-styled caliphate, and Trump’s envoy to the coalition, experienced American diplomat Brett McGurk, was about to launch a major three-day conference for the 68 coalition member countries in Washington.
Hours later, key coalition member Egypt declared that the alliance tacitly supports terror.
During a meeting of a coalition working group, Egyptian official Ahmed Abu Zeid said the coalition should immediately expel Qatar ― the small Persian Gulf nation that hosts the U.S. airbase central to the bombing campaign against ISIS.
“It is unacceptable for the coalition to have amongst its members states that support terrorism or advocate for it in their media,” Zeid said, according to Reuters.
The Trump administration maintains that all is well. “The other working group countries dismissed the Egyptian demand,” a U.S. official told HuffPost in an email following the working group meeting. “Terrorism is a global problem that requires a global response ― and we all have work to do.”
But the episode at the beginning of the counter-ISIS summit illustrates how Trump’s approach to the Middle East clashes with careful policies maintained by the U.S. for years ― particularly the international strategy to defeat ISIS. That plan was devised under the Obama administration by officials including McGurk, and despite Trump’s campaign trail complaints about it, it has been adopted by his team and largely succeeded in wiping out the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria.
Trump has played a key role in a weeks-long spat between Qatar and other U.S.-aligned nations in the Muslim-majority world. After the president traveled to the region in May, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain determined that Trump might welcome their move to punish Qatar for its ties to political Islam, its support for media coverage of regional affairs through outlets like Al Jazeera, and its openness to dialogue with Iran and other controversial actors. The anti-Qatar governments see those policies as threatening to their own rule; they cited them as evidence that Qatar backs terror.
The four countries cut off ties with Qatar on June 5, and days later, Trump signaled that they made the right bet: He praised the move, calling it a step toward combating terror, and made similar comments days later, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others had launched frantic efforts to defuse tensions. Though Trump has since gone relatively quiet on the issue, top White House advisers Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon still support the idea of pressuring Qatar ― even as Tillerson continues to urge a settlement and his State Department casts doubt on the intentions of the governments opposing Qatar.
This week’s summit marks the first time since the crisis began that the Trump administration has tried to marshal together the squabbling and critically important U.S. partners.
Tuesday’s move by Egypt showed that ignoring the problem, arguably a self-inflicted wound by Trump, is not an option. Fresh developments in the dispute continue: Tillerson is currently on a shuttle diplomacy tour among the Persian Gulf countries, and the Qataris on Tuesday pointed to his signing of a memorandum of understanding on terror financing as a sign they retain Washington’s support. The other countries seemed unimpressed: They shot back with a statement saying the Qatar-U.S. agreement did not sufficiently address their concerns.
The partner governments will probably be careful about escalation at the coalition meeting itself, according to Robert Malley, who helped coordinate the creation of the anti-ISIS alliance as a top Middle East official at the White House under President Barack Obama.
“Neither side is going to want to look like it is impeding the effort against ISIS,” Malley told HuffPost on Tuesday. “They are likely to be on their best behavior when it comes to demonstrating their commitment to the fight against terrorism, which purportedly is what this intra-[Gulf Cooperation Council] rift is all about. The atmosphere will be more tense, but the outcome might not be all that different.”
But the addition of a new crisis in an already smoldering region makes it harder for the Trump administration to focus on critical issues facing the anti-ISIS coalition, and distracts partners from whom the president has said he expects more help.
The amount of time Tillerson and Mattis have already spent encouraging mediation among the Persian Gulf countries represents a major opportunity cost, said Perry Cammack, a former State Department official now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank. Cammack noted that Tillerson might have used that time to build on a recent U.S.-Russia agreement to reduce violence between the two countries’ allies in Syria.
“ISIS is a lot of countries’ number two or number three priority but it’s very few countries’ number one priority,” he added. “The Gulf states, they’ve got other priorities: Iran, Yemen. Now there’s just one other issue. If ISIS used to be number two or number three, it’s now dropping to number three or number four.”
The Qatar dispute is in many ways an easier problem than the Syrian civil war, Cammack said, given that the countries involved are deeply interconnected and close to the U.S.
The Trump administration’s role in sparking that tussle in the first place and its failure thus far to resolve it suggest it has a long way to go in developing a plan for how to manage American interests in the region. Malley, now with the International Crisis Group, said U.S. officials could acknowledge Qatar’s alleged problems while pressing its opponents on their motives. ”The questions for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are: Was this the best way to signal their discontent? Was the decision to isolate Qatar the right one? And, perhaps most importantly ― what is the way out?”
Experts worry that the U.S. and other countries are doing too little to plan for important questions like how to rebuild areas devastated by ISIS and the anti-ISIS coalition’s assault so that locals will not become resentful and potentially again turn to militancy ― or how to govern those spaces, especially in Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s future remains unclear.
“The problem is that the anti-ISIS fight is America’s only policy in the region,” Jennifer Cafarella, the lead intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War think tank, said in a Tuesday email to HuffPost. She noted that the U.S. has yet to sketch out a plan for the day after a victory against ISIS that will be acceptable to Qatar and the other influential Gulf nations; that entails uncertainty and subsequently instability.
“The region is on a trajectory to unravel further at that point.”