Has the Turkey-Qatar axis brought peace or chaos to the Middle East?
Many were surprised by Turkey’s immediate reaction in rushing to the aid of Qatar three years ago, when a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with the Gulf country, imposing restrictions on the movement of goods and individuals, citing its support for terror.
Turkey formed an aerial bridge to the country following the crisis, sending troops and food, in a move that effectively moved the dynasty of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, away from a regional chopping block.
Meanwhile, Turkey did not hesitate to turn its back on two countries it already had souring relations with – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey chose Qatar, with a population of 300,000 over Saudi Arabia, its greatest trading partner in the region, which has a population of 30 million.
And Turkey didn’t stop there. It tried to alter, via muscle-flexing, the balance of power in the region - from Libya to Syria, and Yemen to Sudan.
There are many reasons for this decision, which has pushed Turkey into further political isolation and alienation in the region.
The first of these is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mysterious relationship with the Emir of Qatar. There are many questions hanging over this relationship, which does not align with diplomatic customs. For example, reports in 2018 that Al Thani gifted Erdoğan his $400 million private jet have never been fully answered. No explanation was provided by Ankara on why this jet was given to Erdoğan and in lieu of what, if anything.
The Emir of Qatar became the leader to pay the most number of visits to Turkey in recent years. There has been much speculation about why so many face-to-face meetings were required between the two leaders.
While the content of the meetings is not known, it is evident that the Muslim Brotherhood factor is one of the most important bonds bringing these two leaders together. While Turkey’s relations with Qatar go further back, ties between the two allies took on a new dimension following the presidency of Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi in Egypt in 2012.
With Morsi’s arrival, Ankara and Doha, which began devising plans to topple or change the regimes in the Middle East, began to brush shoulders with other Muslim Brotherhood-linked parties in other Arab countries. Every country, including Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Gulf countries, Jordan, Syria, Algeria and Yemen had become a target.
But the ousting of Morsi in 2013 and the toppling of his regime through a coup d’etat ruined Turkey and Qatar’s plans. The countries switched from a strategy in which they were game-makers into that of game-spoilers.
Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia became the main focus. The two countries, which initially followed in the path of the Muslim Brotherhood, became the main players.
A second reason for the Turkish-Qatari axis is Qatar’s mineral wealth and Turkey’s need for it. Turkey’s economy had become increasingly affected by Erdoğan’s missteps in foreign policy since 2013, regression in the country’s rule of law and human rights and a trade approach that paved the way for corruption.
Another alleged reason was a so-called private ‘safe’ belonging to Erdoğan in Qatar, containing billions of dollars, a fund allegedly set up following a corruption probe into his government in 2013. While there is no clarity on this matter, one must keep in mind that Qatar is the only country that has agreed to open a currency swap line with Turkey this year as the country’s economy struggles to recover from a currency crisis in 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
Turkey’s strongman has also resorted to a more adventurist foreign policy because he can no longer make pledges of increased economic welfare to the electorate.
Initially, Erdoğan continually swayed between aligning itself with Russia and the United States in war-torn Syria.
While some parts of northern Syria remain under Turkish control, it is questionable how long these costly operations can continue. Maintaining an occupying force in a foreign country comes at a high financial cost.
There are so many questions looming over the future of Syria’s Idlib province. Turkey will be responsible for the safety of over 3 million residents if the current status quo is maintained. There are thousands of armed militants and many terror organisations operating in Idlib, which is oft referred to as a second Gaza.
But Libya is Erdoğan’s showcase operation at the moment.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the world’s economies, Turkey, which does not have a dime in its coffers, continues to transfer to Libya money it should have given as aid to its own population. In addition, it is supplying militants from Syria, drones, armoured vehicles and munitions.
Developments in Libya have so far been positive for the Qatar-Turkey duo, because the United States and a number of EU countries have begun to clearly express their support for the Government of National Accord. Russia’s boots on the ground policy in the North African country is the main reason for this political development. Neither the EU, nor the United States want Russia in the country for the long term.
Fourthly, Qatar is the greatest purchaser of defence industry products produced by businessmen with close ties to Erdoğan. Among the weapons Qatar has begun incorporating into its defence inventory are Baykar’s TB-2 armed drones, Nurol’s 4X4 armoured vehicle Ejder, BMC’s armoured vehicles Kirpi and Amazon, and Anadolu’s military training ships. BMC will also produce 250 Altay tanks for the Qatari army.
Fifthly, Turkey is concerned about Qatar switching its alignment at any moment. As such, it wants to progress regionally as far it can while Qatari support is still guaranteed. A visit by the Qatari foreign minister in October of last year to Saudi Arabia and a subsequent thawing of relations between the two Arab nations has caused unease in Ankara.
Qatar’s silence in the face of a crisis between Ankara and Washington in 2018 over the detention of a U.S. pastor on terrorism charges was criticised heavily in Turkey’s pro-government media.
The tripling of the currency swap deal between Qatar and Turkey this year to $15 billion from a previous $5 billion and Qatar’s subsequent announcement of large-scale investment in Turkey was picked up by the same pro-government media as though it was a national holiday.
But the zigzagging in relations between Ankara and Doha is not limited to these developments. Qatar is also involved in natural gas exploration with U.S. energy giant Exxon near Cyprus in an area that Turkey considers part of its continental shelf.
Moreover, the Qatar based Al Jazeera network’s negative coverage of Turkey’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’ offensive launched in northern Syria in October of last year was depicted as "backstabbing’’ by Turkey’s state-run TRT television network and the pro-government Sabah daily.
Sixthly, Erdoğan alleged that the United Arab Emirates supported the July 15, 2016 coup attempt to topple his government. According to a report by state-run Anadolu news agency on May 8, the events surrounding the failed coup are a significant negative factor affecting ties between Turkey and UAE.
Ankara asserts that the UAE is one of the most important forces behind the failed putsch. For example, pro-AKP gov't media reported that the UAE spent $3 billion on the failed coup. But it is worth noting that these claims are asserted by sources close to the Erdoğan administration and lack proof.
Seventhly, there is documentation prepared by international intelligence organisations showing that Turkey and Qatar supported terrorist groups in the war in Syria. According to a report by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency dated June 2, 2016, both countries provided aid to the Al-Nusra Front. The group is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the United States.
Eighthly, while the most positive developments in relations between Turkey and Qatar came with Morsi’s rise to power in Egypt and the Saud-led blockade of Qatar, the formation of the Supreme Strategic Committee in 2014, which opened the door to the deployment of Turkish troops in Qatar is another significant event underscoring the ever-closer relations between the two nations. A Turkish unit comprised of approximately 3,000 troops has been deployed to the Tariq bin Ziyad military base in Qatar as part of this agreement. The barracks were signed over to Turkish troops during Erdoğan’s visit to Qatar in November of last year.
A revival of momentum on the Libyan and Syrian fronts is expected once the dust settles on the coronavirus pandemic. A serious defeat for Turkey and Qatar could lead to a breaking up of the Doha-Ankara axis in a short period of time. It remains to be seen whether the policies maintained by either country are sustainable. Turkey’s tough approach, led by a political leader whose future is under threat from an ailing economy and who finds himself in confrontation with countries such as Russia and France, could backfire at any moment.