Tillerson calls for end to regional Qatar blockade

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Friday for an end to the blockade imposed upon Qatar by four prominent Middle Eastern nations, announcing in a statement that the regional diplomatic dust-up has torn apart families and impeded the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State.

Regional rivalries came to a head Monday on the Arabian Peninsula, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt simultaneously announced that they would break off diplomatic relations with Qatar, expelling Qatari officials and nationals from their countries and cutting off land, sea and air ties with Qatar.

Tensions between Qatar and its neighbors stem from frustrations over the Qatari government’s support for Islamist militant groups, including Hamas and an Al Qaeda linked group in Syria, as well as its relationship with Iran, which is relatively warm compared to that of Saudi Arabia and other gulf nations.

“We call on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar,” Tillerson said in a statement from the State Department, blaming the diplomatic boil-over for separating families and children being pulled from schools. “We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this holy month of Ramadan, but they can be addressed immediately.”

U.S. and international business interests have been affected by the blockade, Tillerson said, which is also “hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS.” Qatar is home to Al Udeid air base, the U.S. military installation from which airstrikes against the Islamic State are launched and host to roughly 11,000 American personnel.

Earlier this week, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the Qataris “still have work to do” in their effort to stop support for terrorist organizations, a point echoed by Tillerson Friday. The secretary praised the emir of Qatar for “progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country” but added that “he must do more and he must do it more quickly.”

President Donald Trump, fresh off a multi-nation trip last month that included a stop in Saudi Arabia, seemed eager to jump into the Middle-Eastern diplomatic scrum on the side of the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians and Bahrainis, writing on Twitter Tuesday that it was “so good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off” and “all reference” in his meetings on terrorism with Middle Eastern leaders “was pointing to Qatar.”

Tillerson was more diplomatic in his Friday statement, pledging that the U.S. would aid in settling the regional discord.

“It is clear to me based on these conversations that the elements of a solution are available,” Tillerson said of his conversations with the respective leaders of each nation. “Our expectation is that these countries will immediately take steps to deescalate the situation and put forth a good faith effort to resolve their grievances they have with each other.”

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