US shifts to reassure Qatar with arms sale, joint exercise
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US shifts to reassure Qatar with arms sale, joint exercise

After Trump signaled support for Saudis in Sunni states' dust up, State Department and DOD moves aim to reassure Doha that ties are strong

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R) welcomes US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Prince's Sea Palace residence in Doha, on April 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Jonathan Ernst)
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R) welcomes US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Prince's Sea Palace residence in Doha, on April 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Jonathan Ernst)

DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — The United States agreed a $12-billion warplane sale to Qatar and began maneuvers with its military Thursday, re-affirming support for the emirate in the throes of a diplomatic crisis with its neighbors.

A deal for the “state-of-the-art” F-15 fighters was signed by Qatar in Washington, which has sent conflicting signals to its longtime ally in the crisis that has seen Saudi Arabia and its allies impose sweeping sanctions on the emirate.

Last week, US President Donald Trump expressed support for the Saudi-led allegations against Qatar, charging it had “historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

Pentagon and State Department officials have since scrambled to reassure Qatar, which hosts the largest US airbase in the Middle East and the command headquarters for operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis welcomed his Qatari counterpart Khalid al-Attiyah to Washington on Wednesday for the F-15 sale.

“The $12-billion sale will give Qatar a state-of-the-art capability and increase security cooperation and inter-operability between the United States and Qatar,” the Pentagon said. It did not provide additional details on the sale but Bloomberg reported it could involve as many as 36 warplanes.

A pair of US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles flying over northern Iraq early in the morning of September 23, 2014 after conducting airstrikes in Syria (Photo credit: AFP / US Air Forces Central Command via DVIDS / Senior Airman Matthew Bruch)
A pair of US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles flying over northern Iraq early in the morning of September 23, 2014 after conducting airstrikes in Syria (AFP/US Air Forces Central Command via DVIDS/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch)

Attiyah said the agreement would boost Qatar’s defences and create 60,000 jobs in the United States.

“We believe that this agreement will propel Qatar’s ability to provide for its own security, while also reducing the burden placed upon the United States military in conducting operations against violent extremism,” he said.

The Pentagon meanwhile deployed two warships to carry out joint manoeuvres with the Qatari navy in the Gulf.

The vessels docked in Hamad Port, south Doha, on Wednesday, the Qatari defense ministry said.

‘Strong signal’

One Western diplomat in Qatar said this would send a message to Doha and other Gulf states.

“The deal and the naval exercise is a strong signal for Qatar and I am sure that reassures the government in Doha that their relationship is strong,” said the source.

Mattis and Attiyah also discussed the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State group and “the importance of de-escalating tensions” in the Gulf.

Washington has voiced concern about the impact of the crisis on its fight against IS, just as it climaxes in the jihadists’ Iraq and Syria bastions, Mosul and Raqa.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week the rift was “hindering” the campaign and urged Saudi Arabia and its allies to ease their “blockade.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies during a State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing on the State Department's FY2018 Budget on Capitol Hill on June 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies during a State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing on the State Department’s FY2018 Budget on Capitol Hill on June 13, 2017 in Washington, DC (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/AFP)

At a Washington news conference with Tillerson on Wednesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir denied the sanctions amounted to a blockade, insisting it was the kingdom’s sovereign right to close its airspace to Qatari aircraft and seal the emirate’s sole land border.

Saudi Arabia and its allies — led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — have said there can be no mending of ties until Qatar ends its support for “terrorist” groups.

But Qatar and its allies — led by Turkey — say the emirate has every right to conduct an independent foreign policy and have branded the sanctions imposed as “inhumane and un-Islamic.”

Turkey courts ‘wise’ Saudi

Turkey has thrown its support behind a UN-backed mediation effort by Kuwait, one of the Gulf states which did not join the Saudi-led sanctions.

Its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was in Kuwait on Thursday, and said he would travel to Saudi Arabia for more talks on Friday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (C) attends a press conference in Kuwait City on June 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Yasser Al-Zayyat)
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (C) attends a press conference in Kuwait City on June 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Yasser Al-Zayyat)

“Tomorrow all being well we will continue the talks with Saudi Arabia in Mecca,” Cavusoglu said after returning to Turkey. “We are working hard as brothers to solve this problem and get over this process.”

While standing squarely behind its ally, Turkey has been anxious not to antagonize Saudi Arabia, which it has called a “wise state and big brother of the region.”

Qatar continued its diplomatic push outside the region, with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani holding a telephone call with the Angela Merkel.

“The German chancellor stressed during the call the need to solve the crisis through dialogue,” said a statement posted on the Qatar News Agency.

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