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Qatar crisis could have major implications for massive US-UK air base, analysts say

The Al Udeid air base in Qatar is key to the US-led air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
A US Air Force B-52 bomber arrives at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar on April 9, 2016 (AFP)

The prolonged isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies could see the collapse of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Turkey’s entrance to the region, with serious implications for US and UK military bases in the country, analysts have warned.

Qatar is home to the giant US Air Force Al Udeid air base, a key staging area for operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The base, which boasts one of the longest runways in the Middle East, is a strategically important facility for the US-led coalition and is home to 10,000 US personnel.

The future of the base was thrown into doubt on Tuesday when US President Donald Trump took sides in the bitter row among the Gulf monarchies, which has seen Saudi Arabia and its allies isolate Qatar over claims it supports extremism.

US military authorities have been at pains to stress friendly relations with Qatar, but Kamal Alam, a visiting fellow at diplomatic and defence think-tank RUSI, told Middle East Eye that Trump’s tweets have put the US military establishment “into a bit of a spin”.

'The longer term implications, if this becomes a protracted dispute, are huge and with Kuwait and Turkey mediating, it is largely out of the hands of the US and UK'

- Kamal Alam, defence analyst

He said: “The longer term implications, if this becomes a protracted dispute, are huge and with Kuwait and Turkey mediating, it is largely out of the hands of the US and UK.”

Alam added that the “worst case scenario” could be the collapse of the GCC or the exclusion of Qatar from the key regional grouping. “The Saudi Islamic Arab coalition could fall apart,” he said. “And maybe if this situation continues we might see the first steps of replacing US protection in Qatar for Turkish protection.”

His comments came as the Turkish parliament moved to fast-track legislation to allow its troops to be deployed to a military base in Qatar, in a move that is likely to increase tensions in the Gulf.

“It’s unlikely (to say the least) that Donald Trump realised we are running the entire air war out of Qatar prior to his tweet,” Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defence for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, tweeted.

The Al Udeid air base is central to the US military footprint in the Gulf, as it is home to US Central Command and the powerful US 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, which operates F-16 fighter jets, E-8C reconnaissance planes and aerial refuelling tankers. These jets will be key to US moves to support efforts to re-take Islamic State's de facto capital of Raqqa.

The base was used to launch B-52 air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last year - the giant aircraft have been seen at the base in recent weeks -  and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing currently operates more than 100 combat aircraft from Al Udeid, with jets taking off approximately every 10 minutes, the wing’s website says.

Al Udeid air base is also home to the headquarters of the British Royal Air Force (RAF) 83 Expeditionary Air Group, which operates RAF aircraft across the Middle East.

Following Trump’s tweets, in which he linked Qatar to “radical ideology” and the funding of terrorism, US officials have been quick to try and limit the diplomatic damage by restating existing policy and playing down the significance of the tweets.

The defence department on Tuesday praised Qatar for hosting US forces and its “enduring commitment to regional security” while a Pentagon spokesman dodged reporters' questions about whether Qatar supported terrorism.

Nonetheless, the dispute between the tiny Gulf state and its fellow GCC members is among the region’s most significant diplomatic clashes since the 1991 Gulf War, said Alam.

Alam added that while Qatari officers were still serving in security roles within the GCC headquarters in Riyadh, a long-term crisis could see substantial “fallout” within the grouping.

He also suggested that the US might be willing to relocate its base to Oman, UAE or Bahrain if the crisis dragged on. “It won’t happen immediately,” he said, before adding it will become more likely if Turkish influnce is seen to grow and replace US-led protection.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior state department official now at the Centre for a New American Security said that Trump’s tweets seemed to be “dumping fuel on the fire”.

However, Alam said that “behind the scenes the crisis is not as bad as it looks” and that the “short term implications” for US and UK militaries in Qatar are “relatively minor”.

A spokesperson for the International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also downplayed the severity of the crisis and its impact on coalition operations.

They told MEE: “Coalition aircraft continue to conduct missions out of Al Udeid Air Base in support of ongoing operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

“The Coalition is grateful to the Qataris for their longstanding support of our presence and their enduring commitment to regional security. We encourage all our partners in the region to work towards common solutions that enable regional security.”

The British are coming, or going

The ongoing crisis of Qatar may also highlight the UK’s military presences in the strategically located emirate.

The British military footprint in Qatar is far smaller than that of the US - it has more personnel in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where it has a new naval base - but it is key for co-ordinating the RAF operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The RAF has been operating Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft from the base. These planes are equipped with advanced listening devices to enable British combat jet operating over Iraq and Syria to locate IS targets.

The Ministry of Defence refuses to reveal the numbers of troops in Qatar citing “reasons of safeguarding operational security”, but an RAF source told MEE that the crisis had, so far, “had no impact” on operations as the UK does not “routinely base aircraft at Al Udeid”.

The source said that Qatar has been historically keen to downplay the British role at the base, though reports in British tabloid newspapers that British MQ-9 Reaper drones operate from Qatar are incorrect.

MEE understands that the UK’s armed-drone force operates from a desert air base in Kuwait.

Options for a new base

Any downgrading by the US of its operations in Qatar would have a serious knock-on effect on UK operations there. Last month former US defense secretary Robert Gates said that the US military “doesn’t have any irreplaceable bases”, amid speculation of a breach in Qatari-American relations.

In a keynote address at a Washington conference titled, “Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Global Affiliates”, Gates said there were concerns over Qatar. He said: “The problem is outside the military relationship. The military relationship, as we know, it is very good. It's everything outside the military relationship that's a concern for us.”

Also speaking at the George Washington University event, which was attended by senior White House officials, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce, said: “I think if behaviors didn't change there would be a willingness to look at other options for basing.”