In remarks in the Oval Office of the White House following his meeting with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Obama said that while Syria dominated their talks, the two leaders also “exchanged ideas” about how to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The two nations have been discussing the best way to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and “strengthen an opposition that can bring about a democratic Syria that represents all people and respects their rights,” Obama said.
Al Thani said what is happening in Syria is a “major and horrific tragedy.”
Their meeting occurred as one of a series of visits between Obama and regional leaders at the White House and on the same day that Israel’s top military intelligence analyst said Syrian government forces used chemical weapons against rebels.
Obama has said such conduct would constitute a red line, while Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said today that the U.S. is “looking for conclusive evidence” and hasn’t yet confirmed the Israeli report. Carney also declined to say what action the U.S. would take against Syria if it determines that chemical weapons were used.
The emir last year called for an Arab-led intervention in Syria. Qatar has led a group of Persian Gulf nations seeking more far-reaching measures to end Assad’s rule, even going as far as arming the opposition.
Obama met last week with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The U.S. president is to meet Friday with King Abdullah II of Jordan and on May 16 with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Syria is a dominant issue now between the U.S. and Qatar because Qatari money may be supporting “some pretty ghastly Jihadi types” in an effort to topple Assad while the U.S. is facing criticism it isn’t doing enough to match its rhetoric that Assad must go.
“The Qataris are saying, ‘Well what are you doing in Syria? You don’t want Assad there either and we’re actually doing something about it,’” Henderson said. “And I’m not sure quite what the American response to that would be.”
Another issue as the U.S. winds down the war in Afghanistan is American use of Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base.
The meeting with Obama “confers status on the emir,” Henderson said. “So it’s all good news for Qatar. For Obama, it’s probably an awkward confrontation with foreign policy realities.”
“The only card that Obama has to play probably is that Qatar feels vulnerable toward Iran,” Henderson said.
The leaders also said they had discussed Egypt, with Obama telling reporters that “we both very much want to see success on the part of Egyptian democracy” and economic prosperity for the country.
Henderson said Qatar’s promise of $8 billion to Egypt thus far has frustrated other Arab leaders in the region who are wary of President Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, while the U.S. may be frustrated because Qatar’s assistance doesn’t appear to carry conditions including subsidy changes sought by the International Monetary Fund.
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