By Giorgio Cafiero
Some member-states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) join Egypt in viewing Turkey’s agenda in the Arab/Islamic world as a major threat. Specifically, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh perceive Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” and Muslim Brotherhood-friendly foreign policy with serious trepidation, believing that Arab states need to act collectively to counter Ankara’s strategic clout and ideological influence. Yet Qatar, described by Bernard Haykel as the GCC’s “squeaky wheel,” has been a close ally of Turkey for years. Doha’s unique relationship with Ankara has undeniably contributed in no small part to the friction between Qatar and others in the region.
The Abu Dhabi-Riyadh axis has clashed with Ankara/Doha over scores of regional issues in the post-2011 period. Prominent examples included Egypt’s coup of 2013, the Libyan civil war, and the GCC crisis beginning in 2017. For years, Saudi and Emirati officials have grown irritated with Qatar’s move closer to Turkey, which began to pick up significantly in 2015/2016. When Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—collectively known as the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—imposed a siege on Qatar in mid-2017, this bloc of Arab states put forth a list of demands for reconciliation. One stipulated that Doha must end its special military relationship with Ankara.
Yet Qatar has shown no signs of abandoning its unique alliance with Turkey. In fact, the pressure that Qatar’s neighbors have imposed on the emirate has resulted in Doha deepening its close partnership with Ankara. From early on in the Arabian feud, the Turkish leadership strongly opposed the ATQ’s blockade of Qatar. After the siege began in 2017, Turkey deployed more military forces to the emirate along with 4,000 tons of food supplies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went as far as condemning the siege as “un-Islamic” and the Turkish leadership has consistently called the Gulf crisis one that is “fabricated” and based on false narratives.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the Qatari and Turkish militaries have carried out joint training and war games and held multiple high-level visits, ultimately giving Doha more reason to stand strong amid pressures created by the blockade. In August, Der Spiegel reported that the number of Turkish soldiers deployed to the Tarik Ibn Zeyad military base in Qatar might soon surpass 5,000.
At the same time, Qatar has helped Turkey in numerous ways which have earned the Gulf state much respect and trust from the government in Ankara. Prior to the blockade, Qatar’s leader was the first in the world to call Erdogan amid the failed coup plot of July 15, 2016 to express support for Turkey’s legitimate government—a highly symbolic move at a time in which Turkey’s traditional NATO allies appeared to be hedging amid the violence of that night, waiting to see whether Erdogan or the putschists would come out on top. In August 2018, amid the sanctions which the U.S. imposed on Ankara in the Andrew Brunson saga, Qatar pledged a $15 billion aid package to help the hurting Turkish economy.
Operation Peace Spring
Given how Doha has moved close to Ankara in many domains, it was unsurprising that last month Qatar was the only GCC member-state to support Turkey’s military campaign in northern Syria.
Six days after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani addressed the Turkish incursion. While speaking at the Global Security Forum meeting in Doha, he said, “Weapons and training provided to Kurdish groups during the war against Daesh represent an imminent threat to the Turkish security.”
Qatar’s chief diplomat affirmed that Ankara issued many warnings about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG), arguing that it was not fair to blame Turkey “as Ankara wants to clear its territory and stand up against terrorism.” To show support for Turkey’s narrative about Operation Peace Spring being largely about fighting terrorism, the Qatari foreign minister stated: “The threats are coming from specific groups linked to the PKK, which is a classified terrorist group… Ankara’s sole goal is to eradicate the threat there and Turkey does not want to stay on Syrian territory in the future.”
On October 12, the Arab League’s Secretary General joined the foreign minister of many members of the body in calling Turkey’s campaign an “invasion of an Arab state’s land and an aggression on its sovereignty.” Qatar and Somalia, which also hosts a Turkish military presence, were the only two members of the Arab League to express reservations about the body’s resolution condemning Turkey’s campaign while Libya’s UN-recognized government rejected it.
Doha expressing support for Turkey at a time in which most of the international community voiced opposition to Ankara’s Syria operation spoke volumes about the Qatari-Turkish alliance’s strength. Government officials and media outlets in the ATQ countries used the situation at the Arab League to paint Qatar as an isolated state that breaks with consensuses reached among governments of the Arab world. “The Qatari reservation puts Qatar in one trench with the aggressor, and I have no further comment,” said Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry.
Late last month, the Qatari ambassador to Turkey, Salem bin Mubarak al-Shafi, hailed the agreement that the governments of Turkey, Russia, and the U.S. reached on the proposed safe zone’s parameters in Syria along the Turkish border as a “diplomatic victory” for Ankara. In the same interview, the Qatari ambassador reaffirmed Doha’s position behind Turkey’s right to take military action against threats to its security, pointing to a recent phone call between Qatar’s emir Tamim bin Hamad and Erdogan as Doha’s “clear support” for Ankara. The envoy praised Turkey because its leadership “did not bow to international pressure or foreign dictations” while stating that the criticism that Ankara receive for waging its operation in northern Syria was reflective of “double standards practiced by the critics.”
Although Qatar has previously been relatively isolated within the Arab world regarding past Turkish military operations against the YPG/PKK in Iraq and Syria, in the current period with the blockade becoming increasingly institutionalized in the Middle East’s geopolitical order, Doha finds itself with even less of a choice. Put simply, Qatar essentially has to show support to Turkey on sensitive regional issues that directly impact Turkish national security.
Nonetheless, that is not to say that the leaderships in Doha and Ankara have the same perspective or threat perception of the YPG. While keen to maintain Doha’s strategic relationship with Turkey, Qatar supported Ankara last month amid Operation Peace Spring albeit with some unease and hesitation. As Gerd Nonneman explained, the Qatari leadership did not want the YPG’s “anti-Assad work being chucked out the window” and Doha (like Washington) saw some value in the militia’s role against the Islamic State. Additionally, after the Turks launched their anti-YPG campaign, Qatar made efforts to help the different parties de-escalate their tensions.
Yet by refusing to side with Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in condemning Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria, the GCC’s institutional weakness and irrelevance are increasingly visible. Doha’s decision to back Ankara was illustrative of the extent to which Qatar counts on its alliance with Turkey in order to counter the emirate’s relative state of isolation in the Gulf. Moreover, with Operation Peace Spring playing out in the Gulf in ways that further highlight the Qatar-ATQ split, the odds are good that Doha’s position on the Turkish campaign will undermine the possibility (even if always remote) of a rapprochement between Qatar and the blockading states.