Steve Bannon advocates tough stand on Qatar
An influential former aide of US President Donald Trump pushed for the United States to side with Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Qatar in a sharp rejection of mediation efforts by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who toured the region to get the parties in the conflict to compromise.
Steve Bannon, who served as Trump’s chief strategist until August, presented his views at a conference in Washington. His vision matters because he still has Trump’s ear and is the driving force behind an effort to get followers of Trump’s right-populist agenda elected to Congress in midterm elections next year.
As executive chairman of the Breitbart news website, Bannon wields considerable influence over sections of the US conservative movement. At the conference hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservation think-tank, he denied reports linking him to a company reportedly hired by the United Arab Emirates for an anti-Qatar media campaign.
“The single most important thing that is happening right now in the world is the situation in Qatar,” Bannon said. Trump made it clear that there would be “no more games,” Bannon said about accusations that Qatar was trying to have good relations with the Saudis and the West while supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups that some governments consider terrorists as well as having close ties to Iran.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Bannon said at the conference titled “Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood,” a few blocks from the White House. “You can’t on the one side say you’re a friend and an ally and on the other side be financing the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas,” he said about Qatar. Its government denies allegations of supporting terrorism.
“You can’t be on our side and say you’re a friend and on the other side being open to Iran and especially to the mullahs’ war-like posture to the United States and to the West and to the other Islamic countries,” Bannon added.
He said Trump had a role in bringing about the boycott Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt announced against Qatar in June. “I don’t think it’s just by happenstance” that the boycott was put in place shortly after Trump’s meeting with leaders from dozens of Muslim countries in Riyadh in May, Bannon said. “Qatar finally had to be called to account” for its funding of radical groups, he said.
Bannon said he supported the original list of demands by the Saudi-led bloc on Qatar, which include calls to cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, close the Al Jazeera broadcaster and scale back relations with Iran. He described them as “pretty straightforward.”
That position differs sharply from Tillerson’s messages to the region. Speaking after talks with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha on October 22, Tillerson praised efforts by Qatar to stop money flowing to radical groups. Referring to a US-Qatari memorandum of understanding signed in July, Tillerson said there had been “significant progress” in “sharing of terrorist lists, terrorist financing.” Tillerson said he was “quite pleased,” a transcript of his remarks stated.
Tillerson’s position was undercut in June when Trump publicly sided with Saudi Arabia in the Qatar crisis less than an hour after the secretary of state called on the Saudis to ease the blockade against Doha. Despite the setback and the confusion about the US position, Tillerson has pushed ahead with his efforts.
During his latest visit to the region, Tillerson admitted that the two sides in the Qatar dispute were not ready to negotiate. “There’s not a strong indication that parties are ready to talk yet,” he said. Reminded that Trump had invited all parties to the White House for a round of mediation, Tillerson said such an effort would make little sense now. “We cannot force talks upon people who are not ready to talk, so there has been no invitation to the White House,” he said.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity after Bannon called for a pro-Saudi course by the United States, insisted that Tillerson’s mediation efforts remained the official administration approach. “The United States will continue to engage all parties to better help them understand concerns and point out possible solutions,” the official said. “We also continue to support Kuwait in their diplomatic efforts.”
All parties should “continue to work towards negotiations, minimise rhetoric and exercise restraint to avoid further escalation,” the official said, repeating calls for a united Gulf Cooperation Council, adding that all involved “cannot afford to detract from those efforts.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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