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US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and his Qatari counterpart Khalid Al-Attiyah signed a letter of agreement for a $12-billion sale of US-manufactured F-15 fighters jets, the Pentagon said.

The deal has been cracked at a time when the Middle East situation is boiling in wake of Qatar’s diplomatic boycott by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries last week.

“The $12-billion sale will give Qatar a state-of-the-art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Speaking on the occasion the Qatari Defense Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah said:

“Qatar and the United States have solidified their military cooperation by having fought together side by side for many years now in an effort to eradicate terrorism and promote a future of dignity and prosperity.”

Read more: Qatar: Another reason for the rift between NATO allies?

Qatar is home to a military base of the US CENTCOM which is used for operations in Syria and Afghanistan. Some 11,000 US troops are stationed in Qatar. Analysts believe that Pentagon’s somewhat soft tilt towards the country is because of this very reason.

Amid the stalemate over Qatar, this deal though years in the making is indicative of the importance that the Pentagon attaches to the tiny Gulf state.

“This is of course proof that U.S. institutions are with us but we have never doubted that,” a Qatari official in Doha said. “Our militaries are like brothers. America’s support for Qatar is deep-rooted and not easily influenced by political changes.”

In another development, the USS Chinook, a coastal patrol ship, and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Baranof both were in Doha on Thursday, said Cmdr. Bill Urban of the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet. He called the trip a “routine port visit,” though Qatar’s state-run news agency described the presence as being part of a “joint exercise” with the Qatari Navy.

Amid the stalemate over Qatar, this deal though years in the making is indicative of the importance that the Pentagon attaches to the tiny Gulf state.

Trump’s dithers over Doha

President Trump has flip-flopped over the Qatar boycott. His immediate reaction to the Saudi-led abdication was positive. He even took credit for what the Arab countries did to Qatar. However, in a matter of days, he reverted. In a phone call to the Qatari Emir, he offered his conciliatory efforts. He went as far as inviting the concerned parties to the White House for talks. Certainly, the presence of the military base would have been paramount when Mr. Trump decided to arbitrate.

Read more: Saudi-UAE-Qatar crisis: Will the US’ mediation bear fruit?

However, he again labeled Qatar a “funder of terrorism” and called upon it to mend ways. The constant vacillations have been a hallmark of his approach towards the new crisis that is fast-becoming an explosive.

“We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar.”
– Rex Tillerson

Trump’s overly buoyant statements on Qatar were not fully supported by his administration and office bearers. While Trump castigated Qatar, James Mattis was meeting his Qatari counterpart in a bid to maintain an “enduring commitment to regional security.”

On the other hand, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called upon the Arab countries to normalize ties with Doha. “We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar.” The US envoy to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, who was said to a critic of Trump resigned a few days ago. The timing of the relinquishment depicted the confusion in US policy circles over Qatar.

Wooing Doha?

Why was the alleged “Funder of Terrorism” given sophisticated combat weapons? This could be a classical case of playing the role of a balancer. Qatar’s defense is important for the US military and overall strategy in the region. As the US steps up its military campaigns in Afghanistan and Syria, the importance of the Qatar base increases.

Read more: The Gulf tightening its noose: What are Qatar’s real options?

Besides, the US Middle East policy hinges around the containment of its perennial nemesis in Iran. The Qatar crisis is giving Iran much-needed space, much to the concern of the US. Food supplies are pouring in Doha from Tehran. A military cooperation with Qatar could very well be used to woo Qatar in USA’s anti-Iranian drive, which is going on with full throttle. A weapon deal could also assuage Qatar’s fear, if any, from the growing US support for Saudi Arabia. As the Middle East saga continues to deepen, it would be interesting to see how this two-planked diplomacy pans-out.

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