Trump: The US is ready to leave one of its most important military bases if the Gulf crisis worsens

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, Saudi King Salman, and President Donald Trump at the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Press Agency

The sudden move by a coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, in early June to cut ties with and blockade Qatar perplexed US military officials and policymakers.

The Saudi-led coalition has made a series of demands of Doha for dropping the blockade, to which Qatar has shown no sign of assenting.

The spike in tension concerns US officials because of the massive Al Udeid military base in Qatar, where some 11,000 US personnel are stationed and from which US Central Command has run much of the war against ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

According to President Donald Trump, who has publicly backed the Saudi-led effort and criticized Qatar, relocating from Al Udeid would be no significant obstacle.

Trump was asked about the effect of the crisis on Al Udeid during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network that aired on July 12.

“If we ever have to leave” Al Udeid, he said, “we would have 10 countries willing to build us another one, believe me, and they will pay for it.”

Trump did try to downplay potential conflict with Doha, saying, “we are going to have a good relationship with Qatar. We are not going to have problems with the military base.” But, he said, “if we ever needed another military base, you have other countries that would gladly build it.”

When asked this week about the situation around Al Udeid, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the US has weighed other basing options as part of what he described has standard operational planning.

“I think any time you are doing military operations, you are always thinking ahead to Plan Bs and Plan Cs … we would be remiss if we didn’t do that,” he said, according to Military Times. “In this case, we have confidence that our base in Qatar is still able to be used.”

The break between Qatar and its neighbors was a departure from the relative stability seen in that part of the Middle East. The Saudi-led bloc’s initial condemnation of Doha came days after Trump left a friendly meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, and the US president appears to have thrown his weight behind Riyadh’s efforts – accusing Qatar of backing terrorism on several occasions, including during his remarks to CBN.

b-52 al udeid qatar operation inherent resolve

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US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, arriving at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, April 9, 2016.
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US Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb

Trump has also joined with the Saudi-led coalition in rebuking Iran for what they see as Tehran’s meddling in the region. But the the conflict with Qatar appears to have strengthened Tehran’s position. And since Al Udeid would be the jumping-off point for any anti-Iran operations in the region, deteriorating relations between Qatar and its neighbors and the US could affect their plans to contain Iran.

Despite the tensions, the US has kept up operations at Al Udeid and with Qatar.

The US and Qatari navies completed exercises in the waters east of Qatar in mid-June, running air-defense and surface-missile drills. The US also signed off on a weapons deal with Qatar less than a week after Trump spoke approvingly of Saudi-led action against Doha.

Pentagon officials have said tensions around Qatar were affecting their long-term planning ability, echoing comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prior to Trump’s first remarks supporting the blockade. But Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, said operations there are continuing as before.

“Despite the situation going on with Qatar, we continue to have full use and access of the base there,” he told Military Times. “We are able to re-supply it, we’re able to conduct operations.”