Sanctions, leaving military base ‘possible options against Qatar’

Robert Gates. (Courtesy: U.S. Department of Defense)
Updated 27 May 2017
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Sanctions, leaving military base ‘possible options against Qatar’

WASHINGTON: Qatar was under increasing pressure in Washington this week as Congressman Ed Royce and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised possible sanctions and the moving of the US military base out of the country if Doha does not change its ways.
The news comes after a recent diplomatic spat between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, as well as signs of lukewarm relations between Doha and the Donald Trump administration.
At a conference hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies this week, Royce and former US officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations called for a more hawkish response to what they described as Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian group designated as terrorist by the US.
Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs committee, lambasted Qatar for its alleged support for Hamas. “Qatar hosts the worst of the worst of Hamas’ leaders,” Royce said, adding that his committee is putting together an “acid test legislation” to target Hamas’ backers.
The congressman said that “if it doesn’t change, Qatar will be sanctioned under a new bill I’m introducing to punish Hamas backers.”
Royce also appeared willing to have Congress consider having the US military leave Al-Udeid air base, where the US has been operating since 2003. “If their behavior doesn’t change, we in Congress would absolutely be looking at other options including moving out of Al-Udeid base.”
The change of behavior that Washington appears to be seeking from Qatar is related to cracking down on alleged terror funding activities and “commitments on terror support behavior,” as Royce indicated.

Gates was also open to the idea of ratcheting up pressure on Qatar. Responding to a question on moving the base from Qatar, Gates said: “My attitudes toward Al-Udeid and any other facility is that the United States military doesn’t have any irreplaceable facility.”
Gates criticized the apparent lack of strong action from Qatar against radical groups. “I don’t know instances in which Qatar aggressively goes after (terror finance) networks of Hamas, Taliban, Al-Qaeda,” he said.
He urged both Congress and the Trump administration to “tell Qatar to choose sides or we will change the nature of the relationship, to include downscaling the base.”
The former defense secretary, who served under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, added: “Qatar has long had the welcome mat out for the Muslim Brotherhood.” He called the group “science fiction shape shifters.” Gates referred to a generational split within the Brotherhood and said “it’s a mistake to see it as a solid group,” leaving the decision to designate it to Congress.
Jake Sullivan, former Obama official and aide to Hillary Clinton, also advocated a harder line against terror financing. Sullivan said that “terror financing needs to be a persistent issue we bring out from behind closed doors and continually have on the table.” While many Arab leaders have flocked to Washington, Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has not made a visit to the White House since Trump took office.
The highest-level visit of a Qatari official to Washington this year was made by Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month.
The concerns raised in the US follow tensions in the Gulf earlier this week, after a series of controversial comments attributed to Qatar’s emir.
Sheikh Tamim alleged comments, carried by the official state news agency QNA, apparently saw him endorse Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah — strongly diverging from the stance of Qatar’s Gulf neighbors. Doha claimed the report was the result of a hacking attack.
Criticizing the event, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al-Thani said that no Qatari official was invited to attend the event.


American jailed in Venezuela for 2 years arrives in US

Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and Mormon missionary, is pictured in this still image taken from a selfie video which he posted on Facebook during a riot at the Helicoide detention center in Caracas, Venezuela, obtained by Reuters May 16, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 min 2 sec ago
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American jailed in Venezuela for 2 years arrives in US

  • The Trump administration has threatened crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela
  • Their release came one day after an influential US senator held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President

WASHINGTON: Joshua Holt, who traveled to Venezuela from Utah in 2016 to marry a Spanish-speaking Mormon woman but soon found himself jailed and later branded the CIA’s top spy in Latin America, was set free by the anti-American Maduro government on Saturday in what his family called “this miracle.”
Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, arrived Saturday evening at Washington Dulles International Airport. In video tweeted by the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, the couple enter a room to be greeted by the Utah Republican before a hug-filled and tearful reunion with his parents, Laurie and Jason Holt.
When he departed the Caracas airport earlier in the day, Holt told The Associated Press that the ordeal had left him “exhausted.”
Their release came one day after an influential US senator held a surprise meeting in Caracas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who the Trump administration says runs a “dictatorship” and just won re-election in a “sham” vote.
Months of secret, backchannel talks between an aide to Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and close allies of Maduro preceded their return. Yet Holt’s release had seemed unlikely even a week ago.
President Donald Trump, in a tweet, described Holt as a “hostage” and said he expected to host Holt and his family at the White House on Saturday evening. “Good news about the release,” he wrote. The US contended Holt was held on trumped up charges.
The White House learned from Corker, R-Tennessee, on Friday of Holt’s impending release, according to a US official who has closely followed Holt’s plight and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
Holt and his wife were reunited at the Caracas airport with her daughter from a previous relationship, and all three boarded a chartered flight to Washington. “We are on our way home,” Corker tweeted.
Venezuela’s communications minister, Jorge Rodriguez, said their release was a goodwill gesture that followed months of dialogue between the Maduro government and US lawmakers.
“We’re praying that this type of gesture ... will allow us to strengthen what we’ve always sought: dialogue, harmony, respect for our independence and respect for our sovereignty,” he said.
Holt, now 26, set out for the South American country in June 2016 to marry a woman he met online while he was looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons who could help him improve his Spanish. He had planned to spend several months in Caracas that summer with his new wife and her two daughters, to secure their visas so they could move with him to the US
Instead, the couple was arrested that June 30 at her family’s apartment in a government housing complex on the outskirts of Caracas. Authorities accused him of stockpiling an assault rifle and grenades, and suggested that his case was linked to other unspecified US attempts to undermine Maduro’s rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.
They were held in a notorious Caracas prison, run by the secret police, that also is home to dozens of top Maduro opponents jailed during the past few years of political unrest in the country. Their trial was set to begin this month after repeated delays that led the Trump administration to question the motives for his detention.
Until Trump’s tweet on Saturday, the US had stopped short of publicly calling Holt a “hostage.”
Holt’s release looked unlikely a week ago, when he appeared in a clandestinely shot video railing against the Maduro government and saying his life was threatened in a prison riot. In retaliation, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Maduro ally, said on state television that Holt was the CIA’s top spy in Latin America.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., spoke to Trump at length Friday night and later said the couple’s release “will in no way change US policy toward the dictatorship in Venezuela.”
The Trump administration has threatened crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela for Maduro’s decision to go forward with the presidential election last week.
The US government at first avoided ratcheting up public pressure on Venezuela in light of their already strained relations, but eventually raised Holt’s case with the highest levels of the Venezuelan government and decried his treatment in prison.
Corker was seen live on state TV on Friday shaking hands with Maduro and being greeted by first lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. Corker left an hour later; neither the senator nor the president made any statements.
Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, said her son and his wife were wrongly accused. She worked feverishly to bring attention to her son’s incarceration, hosting rallies, fundraisers and doing media interviews.
Laurie Holt said her son has suffered numerous health problems in jail, including kidney stones and respiratory problems. He was depressed and at one point lost so much weight that he dropped several pant sizes, she said.
In their statement, the Holt family said, “We thank you for your collaboration during this time of anguish. We ask that you allow us to meet with our son and his wife before giving any interviews and statements. We are grateful to all who participated in this miracle.”