KUWAIT CITY – The Trump administration tossed aside its aversion to mediating a weeks-long Persian Gulf dispute Monday, as the top U.S. diplomat flew to the region hoping to corral Qatar and its neighbors into negotiation. The new approach isn’t without diplomatic risk, thrusting the U.S. into the middle of an Arab squabble at a time President Donald Trump had hoped the U.S. allies would be uniting against terrorism.
On his first foray into shuttle diplomacy since becoming secretary of state, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will hop between Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia from Monday until Thursday, testing ways to break an impasse that has persisted despite Kuwaiti mediation efforts. The crisis has badly damaged ties between several key U.S. partners, including hosts of two major U.S. military bases, threatening counterterrorism efforts.
Tillerson landed in Kuwait City late Monday and was greeted at the airport by the Gulf country’s foreign minister, who chatted with Tillerson in the searing Kuwaiti sun and shared a traditional Arabic coffee. On his first day in the country, Tillerson also met with Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah.
“We are trying to resolve an issue that concerns not just us but the whole world,” Sheikh Sabah told the visiting U.S. diplomat.
Tillerson, noting that the Kuwaiti ruler would be visiting Washington in September, told his host that Trump looked forward to greeting him personally.
Washington is worried the dispute is hampering Trump’s bid to combat international terrorist financing. U.S. officials said Tillerson doesn’t expect an immediate breakthrough, which they warned could be months away. Rather, they said, he wants to explore possibilities for sparking negotiations.
“We’ve had one round of exchanges and dialogue and didn’t advance the ball,” senior Tillerson adviser R.C. Hammond said.
For the U.S., there are risks in getting so intimately involved in the spat among Gulf neighbors, reflected in Tillerson’s initial reluctance to play a central mediating role. Alienating either side of the conflict could pose broader challenges for U.S. priorities in the region, including the fight against the Islamic State group and other extremists.
Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the U.S. has had some success in recent years persuading Qatar to take action against terrorist financiers. She said if the U.S. appears to be siding with the Saudis and the others, the Qataris could respond by reverting to old habits.
“If they feel a decrease in support from their neighbors and a bit more challenging relationship with the U.S., will they provide additional support to dangerous actors in the region, as part of their security strategy?” Plotkin Boghardt said.
She added of Tillerson: “He’s putting his reputation as secretary of state on the line.”
Qatar has rejected 13 demands of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to restore diplomatic relations and end a blockade they’ve imposed on the small, gas-rich monarchy since early June. They include Qatar shutting down the media network Al-Jazeera, cutting ties with Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, limiting ties with Iran and expelling Turkish troops stationed in the country.
Hammond said that the package of demands, as issued by Qatar’s neighbors, was not viable, but said there were individual items on the list “that could work.” Hammond would not elaborate on which demands Qatar could meet, but said concessions from the others would be required.
“This is a two-way street,” he said of a dispute among parties who each have been accused of funding extremists in some way. “There are no clean hands.”
U.S. military interests are at stake, too. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols Gulf waters with a close eye on Iran. Qatar hosts al-Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. military installation in the Middle East and hub for the U.S.-led anti-I.S. coalition operations in Iraq and Syria.
The specifics of Tillerson’s shuttle travel, including exact dates for each stop, were still in flux on Monday and not immediately announced.
His mission nevertheless signals a reluctant acceptance of the critical mediation role the United States could play, particularly as some believe Trump may have precipitated the crisis by siding publicly with Saudi Arabia during a visit to Riyadh in May. Trump then pointing out that numerous Arab leaders had complained to him about Qatar.
The administration had been insisting Qatar’s rift with its neighbors was a “family” dispute that should be resolved without a significant U.S. role. Tillerson himself made clear his reluctance to get deeply involved, although he met in Washington with senior officials from the feuding countries.
After no apparent progress, the State Department warned last week that the dispute could drag on for weeks or months and “could possibly even intensify.”