Will Turkish media criticism of Qatar harm relations?

Turkish state-run media outlets have levelled unprecedented criticism at Qatar over coverage by the Gulf state’s news network Al Jazeera English of Turkey’s military operation in Syria, but analysts say, despite warnings from Turkey, it is unlikely the relationship between the two countries is in any serious danger

Since Turkey launched its attack against Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria last month its state-run press has been hypersensitive of any criticism of the country’s so-called Operation Peace Spring. It frequently accuses the operation’s critics of actively and consciously making propaganda on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose Syrian Kurdish affiliates it is fighting. 

More surprisingly, the Turkish media has also directed its condemnation against the Qatari state-owned network for its coverage of the war. TRT World slammed the network by comparing its coverage to that of its Saudi-owned rival Al-Arabiya and even claiming that Al Jazeera English is the most anti-Turkish of the two. The Turkish broadcaster also highlighted human rights concerns related to the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar.

An editorial by the pro-government Daily Sabah said a small group at Al Jazeera English was “undermining the Turkey-Qatar partnership in an attempt to dictate the Gulf nation’s foreign policy” and warned that the countries’ partnership could be at risk if Doha did not “weed out individuals seeking to poison that alliance behind the smokescreen of independent journalism.” 

This is quite remarkable given the fact that Qatar is Turkey’s only real ally left in the Middle East. As Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay noted in a tweet, “Doha abandoning Ankara in Syria would mean that Turkey and Erdoğan are all but alone in the Middle East.” 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Al Thani have affectionately addressed each other as “brother”. Al Thani even gifted Erdoğan a luxury Boeing 747 worth approximately $500 million. 

Moreover, Turkey has a military base in Qatar, giving it a foothold in the strategically important Gulf, and will open a new base this year as well as increasing the number of its troops deployed there. 

Turkey’s diplomatic and military came to the aid of Qatar, which was faced with a Saudi-led blockade in June 2017, and when Turkey faced U.S. sanctions over its imprisonment of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson in 2018, Qatar’s $15 billion investment pledge helped keep the lira afloat. 

Thus, the latest spat over Al Jazeera English is a low point in the special relationship, but analysts doubt it will do any serious harm.

“I think that the dispute has to do with Turkey wanting to shut down all critique, especially in English language media,” Seth Frantzman, a Middle East affairs analyst for The Jerusalem Post, told Ahval. “Turkey is seeking to extend its own suppression of the free press to the modicum of dissent that exists at Al-Jazeera English.” 

Frantzman noted that while Al Jazeera English “doesn’t critique its masters in Qatar, it has had some dissenting voices on Turkey.”

“So this is about a power struggle over media and Turkey is using its state and pro-government media to demand Qatar weed out any journalists that it doesn’t accept,” he said. “This is about Turkey dominating Qatar.”

“I think Doha will probably bend to Turkey’s demands because Doha doesn’t have a lot of close allies and Turkey has sent armed forces to Qatar,” he said. “It’s quite easy to give a nudge to Al-Jazeera to not critique Turkey’s operation. In the past Al-Jazeera has stopped programmes that were considered controversial, such as a report on the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.”

Political analyst Ali Bakeer believes the current dispute is an ordinary part of relations between friendly countries. 

“Yet, in such situations, the question is ‘how should such challenges be tackled and ultimately resolved?’” Bakeer asked. 

For Bakeer, that could mean finding a middle path in which Qatar is not forced to sacrifice AJE’s credibility in order to avoid disruptions to its relationship with Turkey.

Frantzman agreed there is little chance of the incident seriously harming bilateral relations, but sees it as an interesting example that reveals the total control the Turkish state has over domestic media and its desire to extend that abroad.  

“It’s also interesting because it shows the Turkish state will use state broadcasters and pro-government media to attack other media as a message to the state of Qatar, basically arguing that Qatar and Al Jazeera are one and the same,” he said. 

Al Jazeera has sought to mark itself out in the West as independent, but the current dispute reveals that “from its closest ally’s point of view there is no difference and Turkey’s demand to the emir of Qatar is to stop its criticism,” Frantzman said.

While both analysts agreed reporting by Al Jazeera English is unlikely to cause any serious rift, Turkish former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış pointed out that in the longer term “Qatar is not a country that can carry a country the size of Turkey on its shoulders.”

“It is an Arab country and will remain so,” Yakış told Ahval. “Its long-term interests are firstly with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and secondly with the Arab countries at large.”

Yakış said that “an Arab country can hardly remain on the Turkish side in a divide between Turkey and Arab countries,” adding that Turkey would be wise to turn back to its traditional policy of engaging culturally with Arab states, but not getting involved in conflicts between them.

“It should remain equidistant to all Arab countries,” he said. “It should also remain equidistant to Israel,” he said. “This is how Turkey remained for decades a reliable interlocutor, which communicated with all countries in the Middle East, including Arabs and Israel.”

Yakış concluded by warning that: “Any harm done by an Arab country to another Arab country will be forgotten, but any harm done by Turkey to an Arab country is less likely to be forgotten.”