Is Turkey about to pitch another foreign policy curveball in the Middle East?
Turkey could find itself playing the hero that comes to Qatar’s rescue in the first crucial decision Ankara will have to make since embarking on its eastward-looking policy.
The Saudis have launched a major diplomatic offensive against Qatar and are being backed by Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the UAE. All cut ties with the kingdom on Monday and announced plans to deport Qatari nationals.
'It is clear that countries like the United Arab Emirates have tried to damage Turkey on the international stage as much as possible'
- Turkish official
Turkey’s decision on whether to support Qatar - or keep silent - will prove a litmus test of Ankara’s reach and also of its ability to flex its political muscle in what it considers its own backyard.
In the first official response to the Saudi-led diplomatic assault on Qatar, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday: “We are saddened to see what is happening. We are ready to do everything to overcome this situation.”
Conservative columnist Yusuf Kaplan, who writes for the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper, tweeted Turkey's support for Qatar and launched the Twitter hashtag #TurkeywithQatar.
Translation: Qatar, Turkey's breathing valve. Turkey will not abandon Qatar. The main target is Turkey
A Turkish foreign ministry official, not authorised to speak to the media, told Middle East Eye that discussions during the past few days and weeks indicate that Ankara will walk a fine line between backing Doha while not enraging the Saudis.
“Qatar is a tested friend in the Gulf and Ankara will use all its leverage to back Doha,” the official said.
“In reality there is really no other option. It is clear that countries like the United Arab Emirates have tried to damage Turkey on the international stage as much as possible.”
What Turkey wants from Qatar
Ankara’s position in this escalating crisis will be crucial because it has a military base in Qatar since 2016, which will eventually host around 600 personnel. The joint base was established by the two countries to tackle common threats from al-Qaeda to Islamic State to Iran.
Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said that the timing of the intensified Saudi assault on Doha after Donald Trump’s visit shows that Washington is aware, if not fully supportive, of the move by Riyadh.
But Ankara will back Qatar - despite the risk of upsetting the US and Saudi.
Turkey also finds itself increasingly isolated in Syria and Iraq. It desperately needs Qatar’s financial riches to be able to choose and prop up forces there that would be loyal
Turkey will feel cornered by what has happened to Qatar - and also wants continued vast financial backing from the country.
“It is likely that Ankara will take this route because it feels regionally cornered by recent developments in the Gulf and region, including US support for the YPG in Syria and the loss of Turkish influence in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq."
At home, Turkey has a critical election in 2019, but it could be held earlier. And that vote is vital for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is loath to see the inflow of Qatari money dry up.
Turkey also finds itself increasingly isolated in Syria and Iraq. It desperately needs Qatar’s financial riches to be able to choose and prop up forces there that would be loyal.
“It also needs to maintain what many believe is the massive financial arrangement with Doha,” said Han.
How angry are the Saudis?
But according to Han, the involvement of the Turkish military is not going to happen – not even if Saudi invades.
“The Qataris have often used the Turkish military presence to subtly threaten neighbours like Bahrain but it has no basis in reality and would never be an option for Turkey.
A Turkish army tank drives towards Syria in the Turkish border city of Karkamis in August 2016 (AFP)
“And as far as military bases go, the US military base in Qatar (Al Udeid air base) is actually far more reassuring for the Qataris than the Turkish one.”
Han said it would seem unlikely that Turkey can do anything to come to Qatar’s rescue at this stage.
“On the surface it appears the only thing Ankara can do is wait until Qatar agrees to a list of concessions demanded by the Saudis, and then try to soften the damage to Doha by negotiating to water down some of those concessions."
'The Saudis see Qatari actions such as backing the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. They have passed the point where they are willing to negotiate, so there is little that Turkey can do even if it tries'
- Ahmet Kasim Han, Kadir Has University
One of the biggest accusations the Saudis are throwing at the Qataris is that Doha finances groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is “terrorist” in Saudi eyes.
Han said: “The Saudis see Qatari actions such as backing the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. They have passed the point where they are willing to negotiate, so there is little that Turkey can do even if it tries. Turkey has no leverage with the Saudis.”
The level of Saudi anger, Han said, was such that he even heard people in the Gulf speak of a potential attempt to remove Qatar’s ruling al Thani family from power.
He also pointed to how Doha pushed Hamas recently to distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Han, indicating that Qatar was trying to appease Riyadh.
Turkey, too, had welcomed the move. But it wasn’t enough to convince the Saudis.
Another unconventional decision?
Another scenario Turkey will find familiar in the current crisis is the attempt to link Ankara and Doha to Tehran.
When Israeli-Turkish ties started deteriorating sharply, Israel tried to insinuate that some Turkish officials were cooperating with their Iranian counterparts.
Now the Qataris face the same accusation from the Saudis. “A Qatari-Turkish-Iranian alliance is just not plausible,” said Han.
Then again, Turkish foreign policy decisions in recent years have often strayed from the dictates of conventional wisdom, including Ankara's fully fledged animosity against Assad, its decision to practically abandon the EU and its worsening ties with the US.
"We have seen so many decisions by Turkish leaders based on ideology or interest and which defy conventional wisdom,” says Han. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Turkey fully backs Doha.”