Constanze Letsch, Istanbul
The dramatic political crisis unfolding between Qatar and several other Arab states might have negative implications for Turkey, the small Gulf state’s staunchest supporter, analysts said.
“We will continue to support Qatar in every possible way,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) at an iftar meal June 9 in Istanbul. “We will continue to take the side of the oppressed.”
He added that the embargo imposed on Qatar “should be lifted completely because such things should not happen between brothers.”
He later told Bahrain’s foreign minister that the dispute between Qatar and its Arab adversaries should be settled by the end of Ramadan, Turkish media reported. Several Turkish analysts said that Erdogan’s chances of brokering an agreement were slim, however.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5. Other countries soon followed. They accuse Qatar of supporting Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and of entertaining an inappropriately close relationship with Iran. Qatar dismissed the allegations as “baseless” and “slanderous.”
The Turkish parliament fast-tracked legislation allowing the deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar, where it has a military base and approximately 150 soldiers. The law permits the Turkish Army to conduct joint military exercises with Qatari troops and foresees the provision of military training to the Qatari gendarmerie.
Turkey has also sent food and water supplies to Qatar after other Arab countries imposed economic sanctions, closed their airspace and shut all land borders with the small Gulf country.
Turkey faces increasing isolation in the region and has seen its influence waning over the conflicts in Syria and in Iraq. Some were puzzled that Ankara threw all its support behind Qatar, risking alienating Saudi Arabia. It appears that the AKP government chose to interpret the actions against Qatar as a hostile act against Turkey.
“It didn’t take Ankara long to reach the conclusion that, after Qatar, Turkey is the likely next target,” Fehim Tastekin wrote in Al-Monitor. “All the reasons cited by the Saudi king and the US president to declare Qatar a ‘supporter of terror’ could easily be applied to Turkey.”
Qatar and Turkey have long shared similar views and strategies on regional issues and both have backed the same actors in Egypt and Syria. Both countries are known to be staunch supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and both have granted refuge to Egyptian members of the group after they were ousted from power by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013. This support for the Muslim Brotherhood has long strained their relationship with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Turkey and Qatar have long worked on expanding bilateral ties. In December 2014, Turkey and Qatar signed a memorandum to establish a “High Level Strategic Committee” with the aim of forging agreements concerning the joint development of science and technology, the defence industry, military training and the deployment of Turkish military forces in Qatar. Since then Turkish and Qatari leaders have conducted regular meetings.
Now analysts warn Turkey’s unquestioning support for Qatar might have serious repercussions.
“If this crisis gets worse and ends with the disintegration of Qatar, Turkey, as its ally, might find itself in a tight spot,” journalist Rusen Cakir said. He cited the diplomatic rift following the military coup in Egypt, during which most countries, with the exception of Turkey and Tunisia, supported Sisi against the ousted president Muhammad Morsi. “Turkey is still dealing with the regional, economic, but foremost strategic problems resulting from this.”
He added that the AKP-government will face difficulties trying to rally support among their supporters who, like most of the Turkish public, see Qatar as a rich country and not an oppressed victim.
“It is impossible to turn this into a struggle resembling the struggle for Palestine,” Cakir said. “People might form an opinion by looking to President Erdogan but there is no real desire to become defenders of Qatar.”
Despite Erdogan’s staunch support for Qatar, his tone towards the bloc around Saudi Arabia has been unusually mild. Calling on the Saudi leadership to take the lead in reconciliation efforts in the Gulf, he warned that there “would be no winners in a war among brothers.”
However, the rhetoric might well start to heat up. In reply to a statement by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, accusing a dozen charity organisations and 59 individuals in Qatar of links to “terrorism,” Erdogan said: “There is no such thing. I know those foundations. I have not witnessed Qatar supporting terrorism.”
Turkish opposition parties urged Erdogan to remain neutral and “stay out of the Gulf quagmire.” Oguz Kaan Salici, an Istanbul MP for the main opposition Republican People’s Party criticised the rushed parliamentary vote on the bill allowing for Turkish troop deployment in Qatar. It was, he said, “a sign that Turkey tries to take sides.”
Ziya Pir of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party said the allegations against Doha made Turkey’s uncritical stance towards Qatar very problematic. “Turkey takes the position of Qatar,” he said. “There are allegations that Qatar funnels money and weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood, to al-Nusra and to [the Islamic State]. This agreement should not have been made now.”
Constanze Letsch is a contributor to The Arab Weekly in Istanbul. This piece first appeared on Arab Weekly.