As it sides with Qatar, Turkey tries to pre-empt own isolation
London- As it makes statements that give the impression of a position of mediation in the Gulf crisis, Turkey is working to make sure it is not the next Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated country to face regional isolation.
A lot has happened since 2015 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Riyadh to show support for the Sunni bloc represented by the Saudi-led coalition against terrorism. In fact, until last February, during another visit to Saudi Arabia, the Turkish leader was sticking to Sunni solidarity and expressing wariness about “Persian nationalism.”
However, since the Qatar crisis erupted June 5, Ankara has been coordinating with Tehran and Erdogan distanced himself from Saudi Arabia and the Sunni bloc.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was received by Erdogan when he travelled to Turkey on June 7. Ankara said the visit allowed an “exchange of views, first Syria and bilateral relations.” It was obvious, however, that Qatar was on the minds of Iranian and Turkish leaders.
Erdogan has strongly shown his support for Qatar, calling Doha’s growing isolation “inhumane” and comparing the restrictions to a “death sentence.” The Turkish leader refrained, however, from criticising Saudi Arabia, saying that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud — “the elder statesman of the Gulf” — should resolve the matter. He needed to maintain a margin of manoeuvre to keep his meditation posture and forestall the risk of Ankara’s own isolation.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who met with King Salman in Mecca on June 16, spoke in similarly vague terms.
“Although the kingdom is a party in this crisis, we know that King Salman is a party in resolving it,” Cavusoglu said at a Doha stopover prior to his Mecca meeting. “We want to hear the views of Saudi Arabia regarding possible solutions and will share with them our views in a transparent way… We pay a great attention to our relations with them.”
Ankara’s alignment with Qatar, however, has been clear from the start of the crisis. Erdogan rejected allegations that Doha financed terrorist groups. “They [countries isolating Qatar] declare foundations established to provide different services as terror organisations,” Erdogan said June 9. “Something like this should not happen. I know those foundations. Until today I have not witnessed Qatar give support to terror.”
Further siding with Doha, the Turkish parliament voted to deploy 150 additional Turkish troops in Doha. There was also a pledge by members of the Qatari royal family for more investments in Turkey.
Galip Dalay, research director at Al Sharq Forum, a Turkish research organisation, told the New York Times that Turkey was “transitioning from neutral mediator to the role of firmly supporting the side of Qatar” by voting to send troops to Qatar.
The Turkish position was in line with Ankara’s common affinities with Doha as another country facing increased isolation because of its Muslim Brotherhood alliances and Islamist policies in the region. Analysts said the shift is reflective of an apprehension that Turkey would eventually face the same fate as Doha.
Turkey is likely to recognise the looming risk as it sees its influence in the region ebbing and notes indications that political Islam in the region is facing strong headwind.
“Should Qatar be taken out of the picture when it comes to regional matters, [that] could isolate Turkey and perhaps this is why Turkey does not want to lose Qatar,” Turkish academic Serhat Erkmen told Deutsche Welle.
Erdogan’s rhetoric “will not alter the balance of power in the Gulf,” diplomats said. It can, however, give the Turkish president the impression of being shielded from pressures that could threaten his pro- Brotherhood policies and Turkey’s stability.