US halts military exercises over Qatar crisis

Washington's patience appears to be running out over the continuing dispute in the region where it has vital strategic interests and from where it runs its campaign against ISIL

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (C) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (C-R) are greeted by US and Qatari military officials upon their arrival at Al-Udeid air base in Qatar on September 28, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / Thomas WATKINS
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The US military has halted some exercises with its Gulf allies over the continuing diplomatic crisis involving Qatar in a bid to use American influence to end the four-month-long dispute.

The US Central Command offered few details but the move appears to have emerged from American concerns over the standoff over Qatar's alleged support for radicalisation and terrorist groups. The region is home to the US Navy's 5th fleet and crucial bases for its campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as the war in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an economic, transport and diplomatic boycott of Qatar on June 5, accusing the country of supporting terrorists and being too close to Iran. Qatar shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Iran but denies supporting extremists.


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Air Force Col John Thomas, a Central Command spokesman, acknowledged the situation would mean some changes in its local engagement.

“We are opting out of some military exercises out of respect for the concept of inclusiveness and shared regional interests,” he said. “We will continue to encourage all partners to work together toward the sort of common solutions that enable security and stability in the region.”

American military officials have largely said the dispute does not affect their operations. Central Command oversees the US-led coalition's bombing campaign against ISIL from the region.

The US military holds exercises in part to build the confidence of local forces, many of which use American-made equipment. Among the exercises likely to be affected by the cutback is Eagle Resolve, an annual exercise held since 1999 in which GCC countries and Americans work together as a multinational force in a simulated battle. This year’s Eagle Resolve exercise was held in Kuwait in March and involved 1,000 US troops.

The US and its Gulf allies also have regularly held joint, smaller-scale exercises in the region.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said US officials could be signalling they want the crisis to end quickly.

“It is likely an indication to long-standing security and defence partners that US patience on this spat is not open-ended and is rapidly drawing to a close,” Mr Ulrichsen said.