Pentagon officials insisted Monday that the clash between Qatar and its Arab neighbors will not affect operations at Al Udeid Air Base, but the row raised the prospect that the U.S. could be forced to relocate or scale back its main regional hub for the air war against the Islamic State and the de facto Middle East operational center for U.S. Central Command.
Defense Department officials were still assessing the fallout from Monday’s decision by several Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to break diplomatic ties with Qatar over the country’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, a rift in the united front against Tehran and jihadi groups Mr. Trump has tried to promote.
“Our missions out of Al Udeid Air Base are continuing and have not been impacted,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said.
The break has been made as military campaigns are nearing the final stages to oust Islamic State fighters from Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the terrorist group’s last major strongholds.
Those campaigns were moving forward Monday, but there was a general concern inside the Pentagon over further polarization in the Middle East. Kuwait and Oman were the only members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to maintain diplomatic ties with Doha.
“We encourage our Gulf partners to stay unified and focused on shared threats,” Capt. Davis said, adding that regional unity also acts as a critical bulwark against expanding Iranian influence. In addition to cutting diplomatic relations, the Saudis and others cut transport and flight links to Qatar and imposed export restrictions — all of which could present logistical headaches for the U.S. military presence.
Aside from being Central Command’s Middle East headquarters, the sprawling air base is the nerve center for air campaigns in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and at least 17 other nations, the Air Force said. It is also home to one of the Air Force’s largest units: the 379th Air Expedition Wing, tasked with combat support operations for U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
In April, the U.S. delivered B-52 heavy bombers to the Al Udeid base for the first time in nearly a decade to support operations against the Islamic State.
Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway said in a statement Monday that U.S. military aircraft continue to fly missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria despite the rift.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, speaking to reporters on a visit to Australia, predicted that the diplomatic impasse would resolve itself and placed much of the blame on Iran.
“I believe Iran’s actions speak louder than anyone’s words, and they are going to incite the international community in that region to try to block” what he said were Tehran’s efforts in places such as Syria and Yemen to destabilize the region.
“The diplomatic situation will probably take some time — I don’t know how long — but it will be resolved,” Mr. Mattis said.
Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an address last month that Qatar was a clear outlier among the Gulf Arab states by keeping its ties open to Iran and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
“I can’t think of other countries in the region where that welcome mat continues to be in place in the same way,” Mr. Gates said in a May 23 speech at a conference organized by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
To Mr. Gates, those ties are part of Qatar’s efforts, surrounded by much bigger powers, to wield influence in the Middle East beyond its size and resources.
“Qatar wants an important place on the world stage, and they want an important place in the region,” he said at the time. “They want to have a relationship with everybody so that they can maneuver and, I think, play this role on the world stage that is the contrast dramatically with the size of their country.”
That plan may be backfiring as Doha finds itself isolated from the majority of the Arab world. Iran blamed President Trump’s show of solidarity with Riyadh during a recent trip to the region for setting off Monday’s chain of events toward Qatar. Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was his first overseas since taking office in January.
Officials at Central Command have not publicly laid out any alternative plans for military operations at Al Udeid should regional unrest focusing on Qatar worsen or if the ongoing diplomatic feud could affect U.S.-led missions in Kuwait, Bahrain or elsewhere in the Middle East.
Congress threatened to relocate the Navy’s 5th Fleet from its base in Bahrain in 2015 over the kingdom’s alleged political persecution of its Shiite population. When asked if any contingency plans were in place for Al Udeid, Capt. Davis replied: “We have contingency plans for everything.”
Al Udeid opened in 2003, but its location was kept secret until December 2013 when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel disclosed it. His decision was driven in part by a desire to reassure allies and reinforce America’s engagement in the region, said reports at the time.