A few weeks after the Saudi-led diplomatic blitz targeting Qatar, there is no doubt that Ankara stands firmly with Doha. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has developed a close albeit asymmetrical partnership with Qatar. The two states are the region’s staunchest supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and have been rather willing to flirt with Tehran. Bilateral ties, based on such ideological affinity, are strengthened by military and financial partnerships vital for Erdoğan. But make no mistake, this was no easy decision for Erdoğan.
Turkey’s initial reaction to the crisis was caution and silence, signaling more predicament in Ankara than resolve. Turkish officials’ early statements were balanced and prudent. A deputy prime minister announced Erdoğan’s active efforts to help resolve the crisis through “phone diplomacy.” The president’s spokesman stated that the Gulf countries should not base their relations on “false news and rumors,” and resolve the conflict “in line with the spirit of the holy month of Ramadan.” A Turkish journalist argued that Erdoğan was torn between the Saudis and Qataris. Another joked that pro-government columnists had each prepared two op-eds—one pro-Qatar and the other pro-Saudi—and were waiting for Erdoğan’s cue to decide which to publish.
Erdoğan’s hesitation is understandable. The Turkish president knows well that siding with Qatar, alongside Iran, would estrange him from the region’s Sunni camp, led by Saudi Arabia. Ankara has long been in a downward spiral of isolation due to its reckless foreign policy, and has been trying to reverse what it used to cherish as “precious loneliness.” Indeed, Turkey’s volatile economy has suffered from that very loneliness, and generous inflows from Qatar are not sufficient to keep Ankara afloat.
There is, of course, the Trump factor as well. After ruining his relationship with Barack Obama, Erdoğan has been keen to open a new chapter with the new U.S. administration. He refrained from confronting Donald Trump on even the most sensitive policy disagreements between Turkey and the United States, including the arming of Syrian Kurds, which Ankara considers its top security threat. For a short-fused strongman like Erdoğan, this is no small feat. Crossing Trump to side with Doha would risk spoiling Ankara’s new game plan for Washington.
Still, after twenty-four hours of hesitation, Ankara reverted to its default position and re-embraced Doha. As the Saudi camp intensified its efforts to physically isolate Qatar by closing borders and canceling flights, Turkey—together with Iran—offered to provide the increasingly isolated Gulf state with food and water supplies. Most significantly, Ankara fast-tracked a parliamentary vote for its long-standing plan to deploy Turkish troops to Qatar as part of a 2015 bilateral security agreement that foresaw the establishment of a Turkish military base within the strategically positioned Gulf state—the first Turkish military base abroad.