In a photo from Turkey’s state news agency, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, meet in Doha in 2015. (Photo: Anadolu Ajansi)
(CNSNews.com) – Turkey on Sunday rejected demands by a Saudi-led quartet of Arab states for the shutdown of a Turkish airbase in Qatar, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the countries involved in the dispute of attacking Qatar’s sovereign rights.
The demand by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain is one of a list of 13 delivered to Qatar last week. The four governments gave the small, wealthy Gulf state ten days to comply if it wants to end a damaging diplomatic and economic freeze.
Qatar’s foreign minister on Saturday rejected the demands, saying they were proof that the four countries’ actions had “nothing to do with combating terrorism – as the four contend – but were designed to limit Qatar’s sovereignty.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been working the phones for weeks in a bid to end the rift involving U.S. allies, issued a carefully worded statement Sunday leaning toward Qatar’s argument that the demands – or some of them at least – are unrealistic.
“Qatar has begun its careful review and consideration of a series of requests presented by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE,” he said. “While some of the elements will be very difficult for Qatar to meet, there are significant areas which provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to resolution.”
Tillerson did not say – and neither has Qatar – which of the demands do and which do not meet his earlier-declared criteria of “reasonable and actionable.”
The listed demands include the shutdown of the state-funded Al-Jazeera television network, and a severing of relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and any group designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
Among the FTOs, the Palestinian terror group Hamas is being targeted in particular, since Qatar has long been a key backer.
Turkey – incidentally, another Hamas ally – has backed Qatar in the dispute, flying in supplies to replace those cut off by Qatar’s neighbors.
On Sunday Ankara shot down the call for it to close an airbase, set up under a bilateral agreement in 2014, and Turkey’s first military installation in the region. The contingent is currently about 100-strong, but due to be enlarged under hurriedly-passed Turkish legislation. Joint exercises are scheduled to be held soon.
“This is an agreement signed by two sovereign states,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters. “This is an issue between two sovereign countries and it’s none of the business of others, except for respecting … it.”
Cavusoglu said he had relayed that message to his Saudi counterpart in a phone call. Riyadh should “correct the mistake” of calling for the airbase closure, the Hurriyet daily quoted him as saying.
Erdogan was somewhat blunter in his criticism, calling the airbase demand “disrespectful” and voicing support for Doha’s rejection of the demands.
Speaking outside a mosque in Istanbul, the Islamist president said putting the 13 demands to Qatar “is against international law because you cannot attack or intervene in the sovereignty of a country.”
Qatar is home to an important U.S. airbase, at al-Udeid, which serves as forward headquarters for U.S. Central Command. Bahrain, one of the other countries involved in the spat, is host to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
The strategically-located bases play a key role in the campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and in Syria, and keep a close eye on Iranian activity in the Persian Gulf.
Qatar: allegations were raised ‘in a sudden manner’
Qatar denies critics’ accusations of supporting extremist elements. Its foreign ministry posted an article Sunday quoting its ambassador to Germany, Saud bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, as saying Qatar only had dealings with groups that are part of a government in a given country.
Thus it only dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood during its one-year rule in Egypt – before it was ousted by the military in mid-2013, he claimed, adding the same applied in the case of Hamas.
(Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian self-rule areas in 2006, but the following summer seized control of the Gaza Strip amid violent clashes with Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction. It has controlled the territory ever since, using it as a launching-pad for terror and rocket attacks against Israel.)
The ambassador said the allegations of terror-sponsorship had been leveled “in a sudden manner,” and had not been raised in previous meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council. (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are GCC members.)
That claim contradicts the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, who told Fox News the charges of Qatar supporting extremists had been raised in a meeting three years ago chaired by the late Saudi King Abdullah. He claimed Qatar had at the time pledged to refrain.
The Qatari ambassador to Germany also rejected the demand to shutter Al-Jazeera, saying it was unacceptable interference in its internal affairs.
The popular Doha-based network has for years angered the unelected leaders of Arab states with its freewheeling and – especially in the case of its Arabic service – Islamist-leaning coverage.
In a statement, Al-Jazeera said the shutdown demand was “nothing but an attempt to silence the freedom of expression in the region and to suppress people’s right to information and the right to be heard.”
“We assert our right to practice our journalism professionally without bowing to pressure from any government or authority,” it said.
As CNSNews.com reported recently, the network earlier published a fatwa against the blockade of Qatar, issued by an extremist cleric who has been designated by the U.S. and U.N. for facilitating and funding terrorism.
Al-Jazeera has also for years provided a prominent platform for Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential, controversial Egyptian-born cleric viewed as the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, has voiced support in the past for Palestinian suicide bombings, calling them justifiable “martyrdom operations.”