Erdogan broadens Turkey’s military footprint in Qatar

Turkish moves likely to ratchet up tensions between Doha and Gulf countries.
Tuesday 26/11/2019
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha, Qatar, November 25. (Reuters)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Doha, Qatar, November 25. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - In a move that could further strain Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations and ratchet up tensions between GCC countries and Doha, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared Qatar the winner of the long-running Gulf dispute and has strengthened his country’s military relations with the emirate by announcing the completion of a second Turkish army base there.

Erdogan also hinted that Qatar might help finance the return of Syrian refugees to a Turkish-controlled “safe zone” in northern Syria.

Doha has supported Turkey’s latest military incursion into Syria, in contrast to virtually all other Arab countries that see Ankara’s operation as an act of aggression. Erdogan suggested that Qatar was willing to support a Turkish plan to re-settle millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey in a “safety zone” carved out by Turkish troops in northern Syria.

Taking sides with Doha in the dispute pitting it against the Saudi-led Arab quartet, Erdogan told reporters on his return flight: “Those who imposed the blockade have been unsuccessful, and Qatar has strengthened itself in the process." He rejected calls by the Arab nations that have imposed a boycott against Qatar since 2017 over the emirate’s alleged support for radical Islamists to close Turkey’s existing military base in Doha.

“My wish is that the Gulf crisis will be swiftly resolved,” Erdogan said at the Turkish military base, where around 5,000 troops are stationed.

“Those who tell us to close down this base have yet to grasp the fact that Turkey was Qatar’s friend in difficult times,” Erdogan said. “Throughout our history, we have never let our friends face threats and danger alone, that we cannot do,” he added.

The Turkish leader said that construction of a second Turkish military post in Qatar had been completed and that the new installation would be named after Khalid bin Walid, a famous general of Muslim armies in the days of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century. According to media reports, Qatar intends to buy 100 Turkish tanks.

A Qatar-Turkish Combined Joint Force Command is another sign of the close military cooperation between the two countries.

“We don’t deem Qatar’s security separate from that of our country,” Erdogan said, according to the Turkish Presidency’s Directorate of Communications. Turkish troops’ presence was aimed at modernising the Qatari military, “diversification of cooperation in military training, and the improvement of Qatar’s defence capabilities," he added.

Naming the new base after a Muslim military hero reflects Turkey’s self-styled role as the defender of Muslim interests for beyond its own borders. The expansion of Ankara’s military footprint on the Gulf could irritate countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt that are wary of Erdogan’s policies in the region. Turkey opened a military base in Somalia two years ago and also gained permission from Sudan to rebuild an Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and construct a naval dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.

Ankara and Doha have grown closer since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with their former Gulf ally in June 2017. Erdogan’s visit came at a critical time amid signs of a possible breakthrough in the crisis between Qatar and its neighbours — in what could be pushing Ankara to further bolster its political and economic relations with Doha. Both Turkey and Qatar have supported the Muslim Brotherhood, a group seen as a terrorist organisation by some Arab countries.

Erdogan did his best to underline the close relations between Turkey and Qatar during his visit. He flew to Doha at the invitation of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to attend the fifth meeting of the Qatar-Turkey Higher Strategic Committee. Seven agreements were signed during the visit, news reports said.

Ankara helped Doha overcome the effects of the Saudi-led boycott in recent years, and Qatar, the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas, has responded by supporting Turkey with $15 billion in the middle of a severe currency crisis last year. During Erdogan’s visit this week the central banks of the two countries signed an agreement for a $5 billion swap deal to strengthen bilateral trade, but it was unclear if the arrangement was part of last year’s package of $15 billion.

Speaking on his return flight, Erdogan said he presented his plans to Qatar’s emir, adding that “Mr Tamim liked our projects," according to the Turkish broadcaster NTV. Asked whether Qatar will help fund the plans, Erdogan said: “They are at the point of: ‘We can carry out these efforts together’. There really isn’t another way.”

Qatar’s Red Crescent Society said last week it had opened a housing project in partnership with Turkey’s AFAD emergency relief authority near the northern Syrian city of Al Bab, which Turkish-backed forces seized from the Islamic State two years ago.

Erdogan criticised the Arab League, which had called the Turkish operation an “invasion.” According to Daily Sabah, Erdogan accused the League of hypocrisy. He said Turkey was hosting four million refugees and was looking after them without support by Arab countries.

“Turkey is the only country that spent over $40 billion for these, while the Arab League did not give a penny to support them,” Daily Sabah quoted the Turkish leader as saying.