Qatari crisis, Turkish paralysis
Soon after the Qatar crisis erupted, worries started mounting in Ankara. Given the message sent by Gulf Arab countries leading efforts to isolate Qatar, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were concerned that Turkey would be the next target.
What was behind such a perception? Fundamentally, it is ideological closeness. ”In recent years, the two countries have developed an ideological affinity that has, in turn, spurred military and commercial ties between Ankara and Doha,” Middle East analyst Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote for Salon.
At first sight, pundits were busy examining three areas: Turkey’s national political interests, economic relations and ideological dimensions.
There is not much to consider about the first. There is a widely shared consensus among international experts as well as well-informed domestic opposition circles that Turkey’s foreign policy continues to follow its course on a downward spiral because of Ankara’s persistent erratic decisions. Turkey’s once-famous “zero problems with neighbourhoods” foreign policy doctrine has long been buried. On the contrary, Turkey under the AKP faces even deeper conflict with its entire neighbourhood.
Qatar is likely to be the exception. Turkey and Qatar’s good relations rest on two foundations: Military cooperation and financial investment.
On the first dimension, two accords were fast-tracked through parliament. As pointed out by Turkish reporter Fehim Tastekin, the first accord, which will be valid for ten years and can be extended for 5-year periods, outlines a Qatar-Turkey Tactical Division Headquarters to be commanded by a Qatari major-general, assisted by a Turkish brigadier-general. Some 500-600 soldiers will be based at the headquarters. There are now 95 Turkish troops in Qatar. An explosives demolition team with 25-30 members will also be going. The second accord will enable Turkey to train about 4,000 Qatari gendarmerie personnel.
The military cooperation appears not to be crucial to Qatar’s present foes, the United States or Iran. Observers shrug, hinting that it will add to Turkey’s troubles rather than have a role of deterrence.
Many argued that Turkey’s national interests have been redefined and replaced by personal (Erdogan and his close circle) and institutional (the AKP and its emerging oligarchic structures) interests.
It is clear Erdogan has tied much of his hope for political survival to Qatari capital. Qatar is Turkey’s seventh biggest direct investor, Deutsche Welle said.
The amount of trade — $710 million — is not impressive but Qatar is the second largest investor after Russia in Turkey’s newly established sovereign wealth fund, which has assets worth $40 billion.
Erdogan is doing his best to gain as big a stake in Qatar’s investment portfolios, which amount to more than $335 billion worldwide, as possible. Qatar owns 49% of BMC, a Turkish military vehicle producer. It has two Turkish banks, one of which ranks as eighth biggest in Turkey. More than one-third of the foreign currency inflow to Turkey over the past year ($11 billion) originated in Qatar. For Turkish construction firms, Qatar is an oasis: They have so far taken over projects valued at nearly $14 billion.
So, the economic dimension is not insignificant but it is certainly not what is driving the AKP’s paranoia. Erdogan and his team read the crisis as an attempt to redefine alliances and what they see as murky scenarios. The looming threat to Ankara, therefore, is that its dual alliance forged by an ideology, based on relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and staunch logistical support for jihadist groups in Libya and in Syria, will be targeted. Such is Erdogan’s reading of the two items in the Riyadh declaration, which talks about a) solidarity, b) a military alliance against terrorism — a Sunni Islam Front against the so-called Shia Belt.
It is a kerfuffle, no doubt. Among the known knowns though, is the fact that, after the eruption of the Arab uprising, Erdogan and the AKP saw an opportunity to emerge as a leading force in uniting and steering the Islamic world. It did this by endorsing Muslim Brotherhood movements across the region and beyond — all the way to Myanmar.
Merged with a neo-Ottoman dream, driven by Turkey’s urge for regime change in Syria, this discreet pro-jihadist stance continued, many pundits argue, until it faded after Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict. By that time, Ankara’s active interventionism had become visible to the whole world.
Therefore, argues Bereket Kar, an expert on Turkey-Middle East relations in Turkey, a breakdown of the dual alliance would cause huge losses for Ankara. “Because,” he said in an interview with the news site Duvar, the “two countries have acted like twins while the AKP is in power. Qatar was acting like a bank for the forces that made the backbone of jihadists. This meant not only support for those but also those placed in Turkey.
“It seems unlikely that Turkey will let Qatar down but, if it stands against Saudi Arabia, it will then face the entire Gulf as a foe. It will mean a collapse of their investments. So Turkey cannot afford to choose a side. We have a hugely profound problem here and Turkey has neither a perspective nor a regime character to act as an intermediary,” he said.
In the broader context, beyond the combat against jihadism, the Qatari crisis will inevitably target whatever is left politically of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, with far-reaching consequences. Erdogan knows that if the AKP is perceived as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is the only one holding power, thus the paranoia and panic.