A July 9 report on Fox News which claimed that the United Arab Emirates has held up a deal crafted by U.S. officials to end a key aspect of the three-year blockade of Qatar by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt has refocused attention on the difficulties of ending an increasingly entrenched dispute.
Fox News cited anonymous officials who stated that the UAE had requested Saudi Arabia withhold support for a U.S.-backed proposal to reopen Saudi and Emirati airspace to Qatar Airways.
While the blockade of Qatar encompasses far broader sets of issues, from a U.S. perspective the airspace component has become a priority as it intersects with the Trump administration’s attempt to isolate and pressure Iran.
In recent months, U.S. officials have made several attempts to broker an airspace deal as part of a push to make tangible progress on ending the rift among close U.S. partners by focusing on specific issues rather than a general reconciliation or a grand bargain.
The blockade of Qatar began on June 5, 2017 when the “Anti-Terror Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE cut political and economic ties with Qatar, closed Qatar’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, and restricted Qatar Airways overflight rights over their airspace. The consequent rerouting of Qatar Airways flights into and out of Doha not only added considerably to the airline’s fuel bill but also required the airline to use Iranian airspace for most travel to Europe and North American destinations.
From a U.S. perspective, the airspace issue has become problematic for two reasons. First, it results in overflight payments to Iran, which the Fox report suggested amounted to $133 million a year. This does not sit easily with the Trump administration’s effort to squeeze the Iranian regime through a combination of direct sanctions and pressure on U.S. partners to reduce their own dealings with Tehran. Second, the fact that U.S. diplomats and members of the military regularly travel on commercial flights operated by Qatar Airways is deemed to expose them to potential risk while in Iranian airspace.
On January 8, the accidental shooting down of a passenger jet as it departed Imam Khomeini Airport in Teheran tragically illustrated the risks of entanglement in an escalation of tension between Iran and the U.S., when, incidentally, a Qatar Airways flight to Doha had taken off just minutes before the doomed Ukraine International Airlines plane that was mistakenly targeted.
After a previous attempt by U.S. officials to craft a deal that would reopen “quartet” airspace to Qatar Airways faltered in early 2020, the Trump administration launched a fresh initiative in June as the blockade entered its fourth year. It appears that the breakdown of this latest attempt was what prompted unnamed officials to brief Fox News, which began its report with a blunt statement that it was time for U.S. partners in the Gulf “to unite to protect American interests in the Middle East.”
The obstacle to resolving the Gulf rift has been — and remains — a misalignment between the interests of all the parties involved as well as an ongoing inability to agree on the way forward. Whereas President Trump in 2018 hoped to end the blockade by meeting separately with individual leaders and sealing a deal at a Camp David “reconciliation summit,” such an approach was never likely to succeed, in part because doing so probably would have entailed a loss of face by one or more of the protagonists. However, by shifting to specific issues, the U.S. has — in the eyes of the “quartet” — adopted the approach taken by Qatari officials from the beginning, which was to divide the issues and focus on each bundle separately.
In late-2019, a dialogue between Saudi and Qatari officials which initially looked promising but ultimately broke up without result illustrated another difficulty in attempting to end or at least ease the rift.
Bilateral talks began in the aftermath of the September 2019 missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais and the two sides appeared to be making progress, raising hopes of a thaw in Saudi-Qatari ties ahead of the annual summit of Gulf States in Riyadh in December. In the event, no such breakthrough occurred, which, for Qatar, would have meant, at the very least, a reopening of the land border with Saudi Arabia and the ending of the airspace restrictions.
Observers in Doha of the Saudi-Qatari talks sensed a shift in tone after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spent time in Abu Dhabi with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed for the biannual meeting of the Saudi-Emirati Coordination Council and the Formula One Grand Prix in late-November. Had the Qataris succeeded in addressing blockade-related issues bilaterally with Saudi Arabia, they would have split the quartet of blockading states by engaging one-on-one rather than with the group as a whole.
With Bahrain and Egypt seen as playing secondary roles in the anti-Qatar quartet, peeling Saudi Arabia away could have isolated the UAE and identified Abu Dhabi as the holdout to attempts to resolve the deepest crisis in Gulf politics for decades. This would also be consistent with the broad consensus that much of the animosity that generated the blockade in 2017 originated in Abu Dhabi more than in Riyadh, and that the rift can only fully end when the leadership in the UAE is ready to move on. Whatever was said behind closed doors, it appears it was sufficient to derail the Saudi-Qatari dialogue which came to an end in January without agreement.
The challenge therefore for U.S. officials and other potential mediators is that there is no single or straightforward way to resolving the rift in a way acceptable to all parties to the dispute. The lack of consensus has persistently undermined efforts to resolve the issues raised by the blockade on a case-by-case basis or through bilateral talks and shows no imminent signs of ending. With Mohammed bin Salman balancing U.S. pressure to lift the airspace restrictions with Emirati pressure to maintain blockade unity, the Saudi leadership may prevaricate on the issue to avoid having to take a difficult decision either way.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Ph.D., is a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East.
President Donald Trump walks with the Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, along the Colonnade outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”