Last week, Turkey loaded a plane with thousands of milk and egg cartons as part of its humanitarian mission to a friendly country. No, the destination was not Syria or Somalia. It was Qatar, the richest nation on Earth according to income per capita.
The move was a symbolic gesture to a tiny Gulf state that was squeezed by the Saudi-led embargo over its alleged support for terrorism. #QatarIsNotAlone hashtag was trending on Turkish Twitter as soon as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE — announced that they’re severing diplomatic ties with Doha.
The crisis escalated rather quickly with Egypt, Yemen, Libya and several other nations cutting or lowering official communications with the small peninsular country.
Two states, Iran and Turkey, have been especially active in showing their support for Qatar, which is experiencing not only diplomatic but also transportation blockade.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to provide “all kinds of support” to Doha and stated that he had not seen Qatar backing terrorism.
On Wednesday, the Turkish Parliament approved a fast-track bill to advance military cooperation with Qatar. Under the legislation, Ankara will be deploying up to 3,000 troops to its base in the country, which already hosts around 100 Turkish personnel. In addition, it has committed itself to Qatar’s protection, shall an attack take place.
“Our president [Erdogan] has also stressed the need to resolve this upsetting issue before the end of Ramadan, as it is against our religion, beliefs, and traditions, especially during the month of Ramadan,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, told The Globe Post that good relations with Qatar have been one of the few constants in Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
“In this respect the current crisis in the Gulf has created difficulties for Turkey, which wants to continue with its commitments to the alliance with Qatar but does not want to break its relations with the other GCC states and most importantly Saudi Arabia,” she said, noting that Ankara wants to deal with the dilemma by playing the role of a mediator.
President Erdogan called for resolving the Qatar rift through dialogue, while also rebuking Saudi Arabia’s efforts and urging Riyadh to end Doha’s isolation.
“You cannot call a country a terrorist state because some seven countries said so,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kavak said, voicing Ankara’s position.
John Tirman, the executive director and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, told The Globe Post that it is still difficult to predict the consequences of “the imbroglio” for Turkey.
“I do think Erdogan fashions himself a modern-day caliph, and thus sees Saudi Arabia as a rival. It could be a chronic rift and the outcome is probably a negative for Riyadh – that is, having the non-Arab states in the region line up against it and the GCC in crisis,” he added.
Turkey and Iran have been largely tolerating each other while competing for influence in the region. The two countries have also seen moments of tension.
Theoretically, the Qatar row could push Tehran and Ankara toward a closer cooperation. Mr. Tirman noted, however, that Turkey and Iran “have a marriage of convenience only.”
“There are other problems – shifting dynamics underlying the Syria conflict for example,” he said.
In February, President Erdogan accused Iran of using “Persian nationalism” in an attempt to split Iraq and Syria. Minister Cavusoglu also criticized Tehran for its “sectarian policy” that undermines Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Following the comments, Iran summoned the Turkish ambassador.
Ms. Lindenstrauss doubted the Qatar crisis would pull Turkey and Iran together, adding that the two countries’ cooperation is defined by regional dynamics.
“Due to regional dynamics there are limits both to how much Turkey and Iran can move apart but also limits on how close Turkey and Iran can move closer one to the another,” she stated.
On Sunday, some positive developments emerged in the Gulf region.
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khaled Al Sabah said in a statement that Gulf Arab countries’ unity “was paramount to the people of the region.” He added that Qatar is “willing to hold a dialogue” to resolve the crisis.
Moreover, Associated Press reported that Qatar spent $2.5 million to hire former US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, whose law firm will audit Doha’s efforts at stopping terrorism funding.
The developments are taking place amid reports that Qatar succumbed to the pressure and has urged leaders of Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist organization, to leave the country. The former head of Hamas Khaled Mashaal has been living in Qatar since 2012. The organization’s leaders are reportedly moving to Turkey, Malaysia, and Lebanon.
Mr. Tirman said Turkey has been sympathetic to Hamas.
“These guys will be watched closely, however. Erdogan is trying to repair relations with Israel,” he said.
Turkey and Israel have split after the latter carried out a military operation against Gaza in early 2009. Israeli raid on Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation-sponsored Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010 was the final straw that ended diplomatic relations. Lately, the two nations have been working on reconciliation.
Ms. Lindenstrauss said the presence in the past of Hamas senior operatives in Turkey, and specifically, Saleh al-Arouri, who founded the organization’s military wing, has caused tensions between the two nations.
It “has strengthened those in Israel who have objected the normalization process with Turkey and to moving further in bilateral relations. Reports are now that Arouri has moved to Malaysia, but if in the future he will return to Turkey, that will cause a strong reaction by Israel,” she concluded.
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