U.S. investigators reportedly believe the diplomatic crisis unfolding between Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries may be the handiwork of Russian hackers, who engineered the standoff in order to fracture American alliances in the region. If they’re right, then President Donald Trump’s response to the crisis is playing directly into the Kremlin’s hands.
According to a CNN report on Tuesday, Russian hackers infiltrated Qatar’s state-run news agency Qatar News Agency (QNA) and published a fake news story two weeks ago, just one day after Trump left Saudi Arabia. The story in question reported that Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim gave a speech at a military graduation ceremony in which he criticized the growing hostility towards Iran from other regional powers, said Trump would not stay in office for very long, and defended Hamas and Hezbollah.
Other Gulf states responded harshly — but Qatar insisted the QNA report was a fake news story, and that the outlet’s website had been hacked. A government spokesperson told Reuters that the emir had not made any comments at the ceremony at all. Sheikh Saif bin Ahmed Al Thani, director of the Qatari government’s communications office, also said the statement had “no basis whatsoever” and, that the authorities in Qatar would find those responsible for the fake story.
The FBI sent a team of investigators last week to help Qatar determine where the story came from, and U.S. officials told CNN on Tuesday that the intelligence was pointing to Russian hackers who wished to “cause rifts among the US and its allies.” Trump has obliged, publicly spurning the Qatari government even though it hosts the largest U.S. military base in the region.
The FBI and CIA have not commented on the story, and a spokesman for the Qatari embassy in Washington, D.C. told CNN the investigation is still continuing.
The news story was blamed on a cyberattack almost immediately, but official media in other Gulf countries repeatedly reported them. As Reuters reported, the day after the QNA story, Saudi Arabia’s Okaz daily said: “Qatar splits the rank, sides with the enemies of the nation.” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also reacted by blocking the website of Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel, which other Arab governments have long criticized.
The standoff escalated further when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt — as well as the internationally recognized (and Saudi-backed) government in Yemen, the Emirati-backed government in Eastern Libya, and the Maldives — suspended economic and diplomatic relations with Qatar on Monday. They also cut all air, sea, and land links with the country. The next day, Mauritania also cut diplomatic ties and Jordan downgraded representation with Qatar.
The Al Udeid Air Base, southwest of Doha, is home to about 11,000 U.S. military personnel and serves as a base for U.S. military flights to over 20 countries, including Iraq and Syria. The base is also home to the forward headquarters of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC), and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the USAF. A possible break in U.S.-Qatar relations — which Trump’s tweets seem to be signalling — would have massive impacts on the U.S. military and on the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda in the region.
But Trump ignored the careful words of U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and even Pentagon Spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, who said the United States is grateful to Qatar for its “enduring commitment to regional security.”
Instead, the president logged on to Twitter, took credit for the diplomatic crisis as if it was good news, and and wrote that the isolation of Qatar would be “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Trump is giving the hackers allegedly responsible for the initial fake story on QNA exactly what they want: The rift between U.S. allies in the Gulf has deepened.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed how to resolve the crisis with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in a phone call on Monday, shortly after the suspended ties were announced. On Tuesday, just hours after Trump tweeted that the isolation of Qatar was a good thing, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed “trade, economic and investment areas” in a phone conversation with the emir of Qatar. “Putin reaffirmed Russia’s principled position in favour of settling crises by political and diplomatic means, through dialogue,” according to an official readout of the call.
Meanwhile, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the Associated Press Wednesday that “there is nothing to negotiate” with Qatar, making it unclear when (or how) the diplomatic crisis will end. Gargash said Qatar must expel members of Hamas, end its support of groups “with al-Qaida DNA,” and rein in its media outlets, especially Al Jazeera. He added that Saudi and Emirati officials would not concede anything in their demands.
On Wednesday, Turkey, which has sided with Qatar in the crisis, said it was considering fast-tracking troop deployment to the country. Also on Wednesday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps blamed Saudi Arabia for an attack in its capital that killed 12 people and wounded 42, and was claimed by the militant group ISIS.