Turkey’s Qatar stance is rooted in Erdogan’s Islamist foreign policy

Sunday 18/06/2017
Marching to the same tunes. Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L) walks with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) during a welcome ceremony in Doha, last February. (AP)

Washington - When Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a speech in Ankara to denounce the blockade by Gulf countries against Qatar as “neither humanitarian nor Islamic,” he was not just blast­ing a position by Saudi Arabia and others that he finds ill-advised. He was expressing a foreign policy principle that has guided Turkey’s approach in the Middle East for years.
Erdogan, 63, is among the most vocal critics of the decision by several countries in the region to isolate Qatar over what they see as Doha’s support for radical groups. Like Qatar, Turkey has been a ma­jor supporter of the Muslim Broth­erhood, an organisation seen as a terrorist outfit by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others.
“Turkey and Qatar are the lead­ing patrons of the Muslim Brother­hood and Hamas,” Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker who works for the Foundation for De­fense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think-tank, said via e-mail. “Erdogan, therefore, has a strong ideological commitment to his Qatari partners.”
In a speech June 13, Erdogan de­cried what he called a “death pen­alty” against Qatar. Turkey and Qatar, he said, were the two coun­tries with the “most determined stance” against the Islamic State (ISIS). Erdogan added that the government in Doha was ruling a country “that has been able to dis­play an independent approach.” The Turkish president often prais­es the independent course of his own country in similar words.
The move against Qatar that started June 5 triggered specula­tion in Turkey that Ankara could be the next target of governments in Riyadh, Cairo and elsewhere. “Apart from Qatar, Gulf nations are not very fond of Turkey,” journal­ist Fatih Altayli wrote in the Haber­turk newspaper.
Turkey’s policies in recent years are one reason for that lack of en­thusiasm. Starting in the early 2000s, Ahmet Davutoglu, a politi­cal science professor who became Erdogan’s foreign minister and prime minister, propagated a vi­sion of Turkey as a regional power in the Middle East. Davutoglu’s model has been called “neo-Otto­man”, in reference to the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Middle East for centuries.
In 2010, Davutoglu, who was for­eign minister at the time, declared that “not even a leaf can stir in the Middle East without us knowing about it.” Leaders in Ankara were confident that Turkey’s economic and political power would make the country the most important player in the region. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist groups was one of the instruments the Turkish gov­ernment employed.
Davutoglu and Erdogan saw the “Arab spring” uprisings and the role played by Islamist groups af­ter the 2011 upheaval as a sign that a “new Middle East” was being born. “The future does not lie in archaic regimes, it lies in the will of the people,” Davutoglu said in 2012. “We as Turkey will lead the big wave of change in the Middle East.”
With some capitals unnerved by the series of revolts and by Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brother­hood, a group seen as a threat by several governments in the region, Ankara’s ties with other countries began to suffer. Still, Erdogan stayed the course.
Ibrahim Kalin, a top Erdogan adviser who serves as the president’s spokesman, coined the phrase “meritorious isolation” of Turkey, as Ankara insisted that its approach was based on “demo­cratic values” and not just because of its commitment to Islamists.
As a result, Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia have been diffi­cult for years. Ties with Egypt nev­er recovered following the remov­al of President Muhammad Morsi, a Turkish protégé and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, from power by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013.
In his speech on June 13, Er­dogan called Sisi a “putschist.” Later that day, the government announced that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu would travel to Qatar.
Even before dispatching his top diplomat to Doha, Erdogan sent clear signals of support for Qa­tar. The parliament in Ankara ap­proved the deployment of up to 3,000 Turkish troops to the Gulf country and Turkish cargo planes delivered food supplies to Qatar. Iran has also sent help to Qatar.
Ankara, which has maintained close ties to Islamist groups sup­ported and at times hosted by Doha, has insisted in recent days it saw no evidence of Qatar’s support of extremist and terrorist groups.
Besides being political allies, Turkey and Qatar are close eco­nomic partners, which could be another reason for Erdogan to stand by Doha. Erdemir pointed out that Qatar had “sizeable in­vestments in critical sectors” such as finance, media and defence in Turkey.
Although the Qatar crisis had deepened Turkey’s isolation in the region and internationally, there are no signs that Erdogan could change course anytime soon. “Er­dogan is aware that Turkey’s sup­port for Qatar alongside Iran will further undermine Turkey’s tar­nished image globally,” Erdemir said. “He has, however, little room to manoeuvre and will have to suf­fer the consequences.”