August 4, 2014 | Policy Brief

US-Qatar Alliance: Under Strain?

Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf petropower, is known to exert outsized influence in the Middle East. But between the war in Syria and the most recent conflict in Gaza, it may have pushed Washington too far.

In one sense, bilateral relations are at an unprecedented high. Doha signed an $11 billion arms deal last month – America’s largest in the year thus far – for Apache helicopters and Patriot missile batteries. Secretary of State John Kerry has also talked to his Qatari counterpart at least thirteen times since the start of the latest conflict in Gaza. 

But at the same time, in one of his last actions as the House’s chief deputy whip, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) wrote a letter on Thursday to Secretary of State Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew warning that relying on Qatar for a ceasefire legitimates Doha’s sponsorship of Hamas. The letter also suggested that instead Washington should be designating Qatari individuals or institutions for bolstering a group that the U.S. government lists as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The letter comes as no surprise. Lew’s top aide for terrorism issues, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, noted that Qatar “has for many years openly financed Hamas.” Doha’s embassy in Washington received a similar letter from Roskam and a bipartisan group of Representatives last year. 

Over the last month, it has become increasingly clear that Doha acted more like a spoiler for peace than a partner in reaching a Gaza ceasefire. Egyptian and Israeli officials say Qatar intentionally sabotaged a ceasefire proposal last month, seeking terms that were more favorable to Hamas. Qatar continued to undercut the Egyptian-led talks with the Palestinians, even as they were making progress in Cairo.

As if that were not enough, a cyber-warfare consultant to Israel’s Ministry of Defense recently went on record stating that Qatar has given Hamas sophisticated software, training, and financing for networking sensors throughout the terror group’s deadly tunnel system, allowing Hamas to monitor and swiftly respond to IDF attempts to demolish the tunnels. The source also noted that 70% of recent cyber-attacks on Israeli critical infrastructure have come from Qatari IP addresses.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers (R-MI), seemed to confirm these allegations last week. In response to a question about Qatar, Rogers noted that, “nation states engaged in the region in cyber-conflict.” 

U.S. ties with Qatar have been strained for months, due to Doha’s backing of Sunni rebels in Syria, including the Islamic Front and possibly even Jabhat al-Nusra. The U.S. Treasury has also raised concerns about Doha serving as a “permissive jurisdiction” for private terrorism finance to al-Nusra and the group now known as the Islamic State. This was cause for bipartisan concern at confirmation hearings for the next U.S. ambassador to Doha.

It is against this background that Qatar has been trying to advocate on behalf of Hamas in the Gaza conflict, raising the question again of whether the tiny Persian Gulf emirate is the aspirin or the headache in the fight against terror.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter, @DavidAWeinberg