October 20, 2018

Turkey’s Erdogan backs Qatar in Gulf split

President risks Ankara’s relationship with the US and Saudis

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed support for Qatar after Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain abruptly cut ties with the emirate.

The countries imposing sanctions accused Doha of supporting extremist groups and being too close with their enemy Iran. They severed diplomatic ties and major transportation links, and suspended air and sea travel to Qatar, closing its only land border.

[This story originally appeared on themedialine.org]

Erdoğan criticized the sanctions and on Wednesday the Turkish parliament fast-tracked two recently-drafted agreements that will send Turkish troops to Qatar, train the country’s gendarmerie forces, and authorize joint military exercises. Turkey opened a military base there in 2014 that currently hosts 150 Turkish soldiers but has an estimated capacity for 3,000.

“Turkey really wants to reassure Qatar that Ankara is behind them,” said Gönül Tol, director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies and professor at George Washington University.

Tol told The Media Line that Qatar is an important market for Turkish construction and defense firms, and the two countries, whose ties have been getting closer in recent years, see eye-to-eye on many regional issues.

Both oppose Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, both support the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and both want to contain Iran without confronting or completely alienating it.

However, Ankara’s actions may come with negative consequences.

“It makes economic sense, but on the other hand, it will complicate [Turkey’s] relationship with important allies like Saudi Arabia and the United States,” Tol said.

She says Erdoğan’s move has surprised US officials.

“No one was expecting that. Here [in Washington] people were saying that Turkey will probably want to remain neutral.”

Tol says Ankara’s decision may further damage US-Turkish relations, already at a very low point.

“Trump sees Qatar as a country that’s financing terrorism. So Turkey will be seen as the spoiler against efforts to cut that financing.”

President Trump made statements on Twitter on Tuesday praising Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties with Qatar, though the emirate hosts the United States’ largest regional military base that plays an important role in the fight against the Islamic State.

Emre Işeri, professor of international relations at Yaşar University, told The Media Line that Turkey may be shooting above its weight and is making a risky choice to alienate Saudi Arabia and the United States.

“Since 2007, Ankara has been presenting itself as a regional hegemonic power with only middle-power capabilities. Turkey is not capable of transforming the region without the backing of a great power,” Işeri said.

“The new Turkish foreign policy team has [failed to read] the changing geopolitical setting of the Middle East under Trump’s America and King Salman’s Saudi Arabia.”

But Özden Oktav, international relations professor at Medeniyet University, says this is an opportunity for Turkey to play a mediating role.

“Ankara will spend its utmost effort to show how Turkey is still an important player in the region by giving weight to and tilting towards Qatar and Iran,” she said.

Professor Tol says the points of conflict between Qatar and its neighbours go back at least to the Arab Spring protests.

“The problems that caused the current crisis aren’t new. The Gulf countries, especially Saudi [Arabia], have been quite concerned about Qatar since the Arab uprisings started,” she said.

Qatar and its media supported the Arab Spring protests that spread across the Middle East from 2010 – 2012, unlike many of its neighbors.

Tol thinks the Saudi-led countries may have chose to act against Qatar now because of President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, his first official trip abroad.

“I think Trump’s visit emboldened the Saudis,” she said. “[Trump] signaled to the United Arab Emirates and to the Saudis that he wouldn’t back Qatar if something like this happened.”

President Erdoğan has been careful not to harshly criticize Saudi Arabia, a powerful regional player.

“Turkey doesn’t want to completely alienate the Saudis,” Tol says, pointing to Saudi investments in Turkey and the importance of the Saudi market for Turkish defense firms.