Turkey follows Brotherhood affinities but faces risks in siding with Qatar

August 13, 2017
Valued partnership. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) is greeted by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani upon Erdogan’s arrival in Doha, last July. (AP)

Washington- By staging joint military exercises with Qatar, Tur­key signalled that it val­ues its partnership with Doha in the quarrel with other Gulf countries more than a possible mediating role in the dis­pute.

The goal of the early-August drill, named Iron Shield, was to improve coordination between the naval forces of the two countries. Infan­try and artillery forces took part in a joint land exercise at the same time.

Yasin Aktay, a senior member of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP), told Qatar’s Al Jazeera news channel the pres­ence of Turkish soldiers in the Gulf country “creates a balance in the region.”

That is not the view of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which have been locked in a bitter dispute with Qatar since early June. The quar­tet accuses Doha of supporting extremism, partly because of its help for the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement with strong ideological ties to the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish leader has sided openly with Qatar and has been sending supplies to Doha to ease the effect of the quartet’s boycott of the country while calling on Saudi Arabia to end the dispute. A visit to the region by Erdogan last month, billed as a mediation effort by An­kara, ended without progress.

The military exercise, coming two months after parliament in An­kara rushed through a law allowing Turkish troops to be sent to a Turk­ish base in Qatar, cemented the al­liance between the two countries. At the same time, the action was in open defiance to Saudi Arabia. Ak­tay said while Turkey was not tak­ing sides in the crisis, its troop de­ployment in Qatar made sure there would be no “potential mistakes.

Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Ankara, said Tur­key’s deployment of soldiers to the region before trying to defuse the situation with Erdogan’s visit reduced Ankara’s hopes to play the role of a mediator. “The Saudis don’t want the Turkish base in Qa­tar in any case and Erdogan weak­ened his leverage by the timing of his initiatives,” Pearson wrote via e-mail.

In that sense, the naval drill could be a turning point. “The po­litical and symbolic aspects of the joint exercise outweigh its mili­tary one,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who works for the Washington think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Erdogan sees Doha as a key Muslim Brotherhood ally and is ready to commit the Turk­ish state’s military and diplomatic resources to avoid losing one of its last remaining partners in the Mid­dle East,” Erdemir said in an e-mail exchange.

There are other signs that Tur­key sees the alliance with Qatar not as a tactical step that could easily be undone but as a long-term in­vestment. Turkish Minister for the Economy Nihat Zeybekci was quoted as saying there were plans to build a highway from Turkey via Iran — another ally of Doha in the dispute — to the Persian Gulf coast near Qatar. Trilateral talks about the issue were under way, Zey­bekci said, adding that a highway would make it much easier to send supplies from Turkey to Qatar.

Mohammed Mehdi al-Ahba­bi, a board member of the Qatar Chamber of Commerce, said dur­ing a visit to the western Turkish port city of Izmir that his country would like to redirect a large part of its $15 billion trade with the Sau­di-led quartet to Turkey, Turkish news reports stated. The construc­tion arm of Tekfen, a Turkish hold­ing company, won a contract worth $200 million to build a highway in Qatar.

While deepening its economic ties with Qatar, Turkey, a country with a high demand for energy and capital, is also hoping to safeguard its trade relations with Doha’s foes. “I think Turkey is trying to see if it can have the best of both worlds,” Pearson said.

Whether Erdogan’s course is sustainable is another matter. Tur­key’s stance in the Middle East is weakened by disputes with Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Erdogan has an­gered other leaders by promoting himself as a tough-talking cham­pion of Muslim causes who speaks out when others fall silent. His populist messages were on display during the crisis surrounding Isra­el’s restrictions of access to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Erdogan was “a high profile” on issues like that and it “will contin­ue to gain him stature and prestige with Hamas, the Muslim Brother­hood and the Arab street,” Pearson said. It will not, however, endear him to leaders in Riyadh or Cairo.

Erdemir said Erdogan’s course is bound to lead to further isolation. By mobilising Turkey’s military and diplomatic resources in support of Qatar, Erdogan strengthened his al­liance with Doha, Erdemir said, but Ankara had also become “a party to intra-Gulf rivalries,” which did not bode well for the future.

“If the Qatar conflict escalates, Turkey could see a further erosion of its relations with Qatar’s adver­saries,” he said.