Is Turkey-Qatar alliance in danger?

Pro-government Turkish news outlets have begun attacking Qatar-owned Al Jazeera’s coverage of Turkey’s Syria offensive, pointing toward potential trouble in the supposedly cosy Turkey-Qatar alliance. 

Turkey and Qatar have in recent years become close allies and strategic partners. When the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and their allies placed a blockade on Qatar in mid-2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dispatched emergency food supplies and troops to Qatar and committed to expanding Turkey’s military presence there. 

When the Turkish lira tumbled in August 2018, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani promised $15 billion in Qatari investment for Turkey. 

“Today, that seemingly unshakable alliance is now under threat – from within,” Turkish pro-government Daily Sabah said in an editorial on Monday, expanding on a similar complaint made in a lengthy analysis by state-run broadcaster TRT World at the weekend. 

“Al Jazeera English, Qatar's flagship news channel, has been spreading anti-Turkey propaganda,” said Daily Sabah. “Under the pretext of independent and objective journalism, the network has succumbed to bias and fake news to mis-portray known terrorists and fugitives from law as oppressed activists. Jumping on the Western media's Turkey-bashing bandwagon, the network smeared last month's Turkish operation into northeastern Syria.”

Turkey’s position is that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its affiliate the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are extensions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has led an insurgency in Turkey for 35 years and is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, as well as Turkey. 

This, Ankara argues, made the Kurdish entity along the Syrian border an existential threat and necessitated Turkey’s incursion, despite the fact that the SDF played a crucial role in the U.S.-led effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). 

The TRT World analysis detailed anti-Turkey reporting in both Al Jazeera and Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, pinning the former’s as worse. 

“Al Jazeera English goes a step further and even describes the PKK parent organisation as simply ‘Kurdish fighters’- completely whitewashing it of its bloody history,” said the report

“By labelling the YPG as ‘Kurds’ or ‘Kurdish forces’, they are de-facto elevated to the role of representatives of the Kurdish people as a whole.”

Since its Oct. 9 launch, Turkey’s offensive in northeast Syria has led to hundreds of deaths and displaced some 300,000 people. International media and Western news outlets have in recent weeks charged Ankara with ethnic cleansing, war crimes and worse.

The SDF has used the word genocide to describe Turkey’s actions, as have a number of British newspapers and at least one U.S. senator. 

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives appeared to doubly punish Turkey for its offensive, voting for sanctions against Erdoğan and other officials for the Syria offensive and passing a resolution to officially acknowledge the Armenian genocide, which Turkey officially denies. 

All of this appears to have put Turkey’s NATO allies in an uncomfortable position. The Times reported on Monday that the UN had decided against looking for traces of white phosphorous in a recent attack by Turkey-backed rebels, which it said suggests NATO members seem reluctant to investigate possible war crimes committed by Turkey and its partners in Syria. 

Daily Sabah went on to say that Al Jazeera had charged Turkey with deporting Syrian refugees, “without a shred of evidence”. Last week, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Turkey had been deporting Syrians and warned against any future returns to a conflict zone. 

The editorial said that while Al Jazeera Arabic continued to provide the necessary nuance on Syria, Al Jazeera English sought to reshape regional geopolitics. 

“A small group of people within Al Jazeera English are deliberately dismantling the network's own legacy and undermining the Turkey-Qatar partnership in an attempt to dictate the Gulf nation's foreign policy,” said Daily Sabah. 

Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst, pointed out that he wrote an article for Al Jazeera English last month defending Turkey’s Syria offensive, so the site appears not to have taken a fully anti-Turkey position on the issue. 

Yet Bakeer did view Daily Sabah as a poor choice of medium for airing grievances between allies. “I think that whatever the problem regarding the coverage of Al Jazeera English, the Qataris would have certainly preferred that such an issue should have been conveyed through the appropriate channels,” he told Ahval. 

David Roberts, lecturer at King’s College London and non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, sees Ankara being overly sensitive in this case, as about 90 percent of the time Al Jazeera staffers make their own editorial decisions.   

“I tend not to get excited about ‘Al Jazeera slanders x or y,’ kind of stories,” said Roberts, author of Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City State. 

“They are a bureaucracy and all bureaucracies are punchy and resilient in their own ways,” he explained. “I rarely believe that the Qatar government has forced Al Jazeera to do anything. I think it's more likely that Al Jazeera people decided by themselves, to curry favour with Qatari bosses, or they just thought their story was right.”

Either way, Turkey’s pro-government media is not taking any chances, perhaps because Turkey expects to open a new military base in Qatar by the end of the year. 

“The Turkey-Qatar partnership's future is at stake,” said Daily Sabah. “Before it is too late, Al Jazeera needs to weed out all individuals seeking to poison that alliance behind the smokescreen of independent journalism.”