Thomas Seibert, WashingtonWhen Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a speech in Ankara on June 13 to denounce the blockade by Gulf nations against Qatar as “neither humanitarian nor Islamic”, he was not just blasting a position by Saudi Arabia and others that he finds ill-advised. He was expressing a foreign policy principle that has guided Turkey’s approach in the Middle East for years.
Erdogan, 63, is among the most vocal critics of the decision by several countries in the region to isolate Qatar over what they see as Doha’s support for radical groups. Like Qatar, Turkey has been a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization seen as a terrorist outfit by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others.
“Turkey and Qatar are the leading patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas,” Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who works for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank, told The Arab Weekly in an E-mail. “Erdogan, therefore, has a strong ideological commitment to his Qatari partners.”
In his speech, Erdogan decried what he called a “death penalty” against Qatar. Turkey and Qatar were the two nations with the “most determined stance” against the Islamic State (ISIS). Erdogan added that the government in Doha was ruling a country “that has been able to display an independent approach”. The Turkish President often praises the independent course of his own country in similar words.
The move against Qatar that started on June 5 has triggered speculation in Turkey that Ankara could be the next target of governments in Riyadh, Cairo and elsewhere. “Apart from Qatar, Gulf nations are not very fond of Turkey,” journalist Fatih Altayli wrote in the Haberturk newspaper.
Turkey’s policies in recent years are one reason for that lack of enthusiasm. Starting in the early 2000s, Ahmet Davutoglu, a political science professor who went on to become Erdogan’s Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, propagated a vision of Turkey as a regional power in the Middle East. Davutoglu’s model has been called “neo Ottoman”, in reference to the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Middle East for centuries.
In 2010, Davutoglu, who was foreign minister at the time, declared that “not even a leaf can stir in the Middle East without us knowing about it”. Leaders in Ankara were confident that Turkey’s economic and political power would make the country the most important player in the region. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups was one of the instruments the Turkish government employed.
Davutoglu and Erdogan saw the “Arab spring” uprisings and the role played by Islamist groups after the 2011 upheaval as a sign that “a new Middle East” was being born. “The future does not lie in archaic regimes, it lies in the will of the people,” Davutoglu said in 2012. “We as Turkey will lead the big wave of change in the Middle East.”
With some capitals unnerved by the series of revolts and by Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group seen as a threat by a number of governments in the region, Ankara’s ties with other countries began to suffer. Still, Erdogan stayed the course. Ibrahim Kalin, a top Erdogan advisor who today serves as the president’s spokesman, coined the phrase “meritorious isolation” of Turkey, as Ankara insisted that its approach was based on “democratic values” and not just because of its commitment to Islamists.
As a result, Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been difficult for years. Ties with Egypt have never recovered following the removal of then-President Mohamed Morsi, a Turkish protégé and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, from power by today’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013. In his speech on June 13, Erdogan called Sisi a “putschist”. Later the same day, the government announced that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu would travel to Qatar.
Even before dispatching his top diplomat to Doha, Erdogan sent clear signals of support for Qatar. Parliament in Ankara has approved the deployment of up to 3,000 Turkish troops to the Gulf nation, while Turkish cargo planes delivered food supplies to the isolated country. Iran has also sent help to Qatar.
Ankara, which has maintained close ties to Islamist groups supported and at times hosted by Doha, has insisted in recent days it saw no evidence of Qatar’s support of extremist and terrorist groups.
Besides being political allies, Turkey and Qatar are close economic partners, which could be another reason for Erdogan to stand by Doha. The FDD’s Erdemir pointed out that Qatar had “sizeable investments in critical sectors such as finance, media, and defense” in Turkey.
Although the Qatar crisis had deepened Turkey’s isolation in the region and internationally, there are no signs that Erdogan could change course anytime soon. “Erdogan is aware that Turkey’s support for Qatar alongside Iran will further undermine Turkey’s tarnished image globally,” Erdemir said. “He has, however, little room to manoeuvre, and will have to suffer the consequences.”
First appeared on Arab Weekly