In the midst of the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, Turkey decided to expedite the deployment of 3,000 to 5,000 troops to Qatar. The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi - AKP) government also launched a diplomatic campaign in support of its gas-rich ally in the Gulf, which may further escalate regional tensions. Some allege that Turkey’s controversial decision to support Qatar against the coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt results from Qatari financial support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, consideration of Ankara’s wider political aspirations, including its demonstrated will to preserve an active involvement in Middle Eastern political arenas and to counter the US-led international coalition’s Syria policies, reveals a more complex rationale for such unprecedented military and political support.
Gulf in Crisis: Qatar against Arabs
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed severe sanctions on Qatar this month, accusing the tiny, gas-rich monarchy of supporting both Sunni and Shiʿi terrorism throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Saudi Arabia-led bloc issued statements listing some 50 geographically diverse Sunni and Shiʿi organizations and figures that allegedly receive financial and political support from Qatar. Even though most of the rhetoric concerning Qatar focused on the Al Thani monarchy’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, militant Shiʿi organizations, like the Bahraini Saraya al-Mokhtar and the Yemen-based Ansar Allah (Houthis), were also included in the GCC statements. The Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition suspended Qatari participation in the war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, prominent Sunni-jihadist figures, like Abdullah al-Muhaysini and the imam of the Muslim Brotherhood Yusuf al-Qaradawi, were called proxies of the Al Thani regime. In other words, the Arab coalition accused Qatar of supporting terrorist organizations and persons spanning from Shiʿis, considered a threat to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to Sunni-jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood, considered a threat to all Arab regimes.
The dispute between Qatar and the Saudi Arabia-led bloc in the Gulf, Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its support for several Sunni groups in Syria allegedly linked to al-Qaʿida are not new phenomena. In contrast, the severity of allegations connecting Qatar to Iran represents a departure from the past. In recent years, GCC governments have accused Qatar-based media outlets, such as al-Jazeera, of a pro-Iran bias several times, and criticized Qatar’s unbearable tolerance towards Iran. Nonetheless, Qatar remained an active participant in the Arab coalition opposing Iran-backed Houthis, and purportedly backed Sunni organizations in Syria that have indeed been at odds with Iran and its regional proxies. It should be noted that Qatar rejected these recent allegations, including Bahrain’s claims that the Al Thani regime offered support to Bahrain’s main Shiʿi opposition group, al-Wefaq. A statement released by the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs documents communications with these Shiʿi groups as facilitating mediation efforts, rather than constituting direct support for destabilizing the region’s Sunni-led governments.
Indeed, the Gulf crisis is a multi-faceted case, with allegations of Qatari connections to Iran and to Sunni political Islamist groups spanning from Libya to Yemen. According to the Saudi-led bloc, over the past several years, Qatar has fostered relations with Sunni and Shiʿi adversaries of the GCC and its allies, including the US. The Al Thani leadership was accused of paying $1 billion ransom to an Iranian proxy group in southern Iraq in order to release a Qatari falconry party abducted in 2015. As concrete evidence of allegations, Saudi and UAE outlets’ media campaign against Qatar referenced a report on an official Qatari news agency’s website that portrays the Al Thani monarchy as sympathetic to Iran and Hezbollah. Although Qatar claimed that the report was published on its website by hackers, Iran was the first country to speak out against the ongoing blockade of Qatar, followed by Turkey. Notably, a few days after the outbreak of the Gulf crisis, Hezbollah-linked media outlets published statements by the Yemen-based Houthis announcing that the Iran-backed group was ready to cooperate with Qatar. While many groups in the Iran-linked Shiʿi camp expressed support for Qatar against the Saudi-led bloc’s aggression, the Muslim Brotherhood’s stance was almost singlehandedly represented by Turkey and its president, Erdoğan.
Turkey and the Gulf: Explaining Erdoğan’s Qatar Game
International and Turkish media have put forward several theories attempting to explain Turkey’s support for Qatar in the Gulf crisis. Most of these theories agree that Turkey’s leadership is fearful of corresponding Arab coalition action against Turkey, considering that both Turkey and Qatar have supported the same Sunni groups in Syria and Egypt. However, this explanation fails to address Iran’s role, which is central to the Saudi-led bloc’s allegations against Qatar. Turkey’s unprecedented expedited deployment of forces to Qatar represents a Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East that is far more sophisticated than simple preemptive measures intended to prevent possible corresponding actions against Turkey. Although some accuse Qatar of financially sponsoring AKP in order to ensure Turkish military and diplomatic protection, Qatar’s significance to Turkey has more to do with the fact that Qatar is one of the few arenas in which Turkey has successfully expanded its Middle East influence. This is emphasized by the failure of Turkish projects in Syria, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, and the Gulf.
Turkey’s foreign policy towards the Middle East has undergone a major shift, transitioning from the isolationism of the previous Kemalist regime to various modes of interventionism during the second half of AKP’s single-party rule. Western press and academia often associated the new Turkish foreign policy doctrine, largely attributed to former Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu, with the theory of neo-Ottomanism. This theory was primarily based on the optimistic perspective that Ankara could utilize cultural and religious ties with Sunni-Muslim societies in order to exert a postmodern Ottomanist influence on the region. AKP’s anti-isolationist theory - once adopted as Turkey’s official foreign policy doctrine, with the slogan, “zero problems with neighbors”- faced collapse due to Ankara’s intervention in the Syrian civil war. As Turkey became one of the proud sponsors of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Ankara’s initial vision of expanding its political influence through cultural and religious ties was replaced with the enactment of indirect military intervention in a neighboring state from 2011-2015. In August 2016, with the start of the Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria, Turkey converted its off-site support for Syrian rebels into a direct military intervention. The same year marked the construction of a Turkish military base in Qatar, the purpose of which has not been clarified by either Turkish authorities or the Al Thani monarchy.
After the collapse of the so-called neo-Ottomanist project, Turkey rapidly resorted to military power in its struggle to preserve political influence over the Middle East. In 2015, Turkey established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and established permanent bases in northern Syria soon after. As Ankara continued to lose the influence it exerted over Iraqi politics via its allies in the country (the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and a small force of Sunni militias led by Atheel al-Nujaifi), Erdoğan’s regime started to prepare for the Tigris Shield military intervention in northeastern Iraq.
In light of Turkey’s modified foreign policy towards the Middle East, one could argue that Ankara fears losing its planned military deployment to Qatar as much as it fears corresponding sanctions by the Saudi-led bloc. Therefore, the recent expedited military deployment may not be intended to serve as immediate operational protection against the Saudi-led bloc, but rather to guarantee the continuation of Turkey’s current Middle East policy doctrine. If this is the case, the expedited deployment supports Qatar’s goals, but may fall short of securing the tiny Gulf emirate against the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s diplomatic, economic, and possible military measures.
However, it must be noted that for the Arab coalition, the Sunni related allegations against Qatar represent the most tolerable part of Qatar’s policies in the region. For example, in Yemen, the Saudi-led Arab coalition has turned a blind eye towards Muslim Brotherhood faction al-Islah. The risk of losing Yemen to an Iran-backed Shiʿi force supersedes the Sunni threat - notwithstanding the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood to all Arab regimes, including the UAE, the second most active member of the Arab coalition. Therefore, the Saudi-led bloc’s anti-Qatar campaign might well be defined as part of a project to unify Arab ranks against Iran, as supported by the Trump administration. In this case, although denunciations of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni entities serve to expand the Arab coalition to include Egypt, the coalition’s primary objective is reversing the alleged rapprochement between Iran and Qatar.
Turkey’s decision to back Qatar despite its possible connections with Iran is elucidated by Turkey’s Syria policies, which focus on countering the US-led international coalition. The Turkish military intervention of August 2016, which marked a major shift in Turkey’s Middle East policy, came in response to territorial gains by the US-backed Syrian Kurds in northern Syria. Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and, later that year, with Iran, attempted to counter the US project in Syria. Ankara’s compromises with Russia even included the abandonment of Sunni rebels in Aleppo, a city of symbolic importance to the Syrian rebellion of six years. Ankara was the first to voice opposition to advances by Iran-backed Shiʿi militias in northern Iraqi territory, such as the Turkmen town of Tel Afar. However, Turkey’s practical measures (including limited-scale airstrikes) targeted only the US-allied Kurdish factions in Sinjar, while Shiʿi militias continued to advance in the same region. If the current Saudi-led campaign against Qatar is perceived by Turkey to be another US project further diminishing Turkey’s role, especially in Syria, where Qatar and Turkey-backed factions have been blacklisted, Ankara may maintain its backing of Qatar despite Iran’s alleged involvement with the country.
Ceng Sagnic is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) - Tel Aviv University. He serves as the coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program and co-editor of Turkeyscope. cengsagnic[at]gmail.com
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