Will Turkey Widen the Schism in the Middle East?

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Background

As a previous FDI paper showed, Saudi Arabia and its allies, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, among others, broke off diplomatic, economic and transportation ties with Qatar over the latter’s alleged ties to terrorism. While the ferocity of this unprecedented step came as a surprise to Qatar, catching it unprepared for the sudden lack of food imports, for instance, countries like Iran and Turkey soon stepped in to alleviate Qatar’s difficulties. Iran offered to ship food to Qatar but it was Turkey that went further, offering it military and diplomatic support. This action, no matter how well-intentioned, could see the rift in the Middle East widen and remain locked in place for longer than observers had previously anticipated.

Comment

The dispute between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the other, began on 5 June. The dispute soon spread beyond the members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The Saudi allies in this matter – Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE – perceive Qatar as an instigator of regional unrest and its criticisms of them via the Al Jazeera broadcasting organisation only adds to their distaste for Qatar’s rulers. This perception would appear to be justified to an extent, since it is generally believed that the Qatari ruling family, directly or otherwise, manages the editorial opinions of the Qatari media. In the wake of President Trump’s meeting in Riyadh with King Salman, for instance, the Qatar News Agency reported that the Qatari ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, criticised the aggressive rhetoric directed towards Iran by Salman and Trump. Matters came to a head on 29 May, however, when Al Jazeera posted a cartoon denigrating the Saudi king on its official Twitter feed. Qatari protestations that Al Jazeera had been hacked did nothing to placate Saudi anger. Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, which had also been criticised at various times, joined Saudi Arabia in isolating Qatar in the GCC, recalling their diplomats from Doha and breaking off economic and transportation links. Bahrain would have undoubtedly recalled the Iran-instigated uprisings among its Shi’a population and Riyadh’s assistance in quelling them, while the UAE and Egypt would have borne Qatar’s connections and alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood in mind in doing so. Little surprise then that Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a joint statement on 9 June, declared 59 people, including Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yousef al-Qaradawi, and twelve organisations, including the Qatari-funded charities, Qatar Charity and Eid Charity, as being linked to terrorism. Doha denied the charge.

Yemen had little choice but to align with Saudi Arabia. Yemeni President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi’s displaced government is, after all, fighting against Iranian-backed insurgents with the assistance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi support for Libya’s House of Representatives in Tobruk, similarly, saw that body align with Riyadh. Qatar’s connections with the various Islamist militias that the House opposes in Libya only hastened that decision.

Kuwait, which sees itself as being neutral, attempted to negotiate between Doha and Riyadh but to little avail.

It is Turkey, however, that could cause the greatest rift in the current crisis. Ankara and Doha share similar views on the Syrian Civil War and, therefore, back the same rebel groups there. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Emir Al Thani have a close relationship. When the previous Qatari Emir, the present Emir’s father (who he overthrew in a bloodless coup), visited Turkey in 2014, he established the Turkey-Qatar High Strategic Committee with Ankara. The two states jointly signed agreements on military training, their defence industries and, importantly, on deploying Turkish armed forces in Qatar. Around 150 Turkish army, navy and Special Forces personnel have been stationed, consequently, in Qatar since October 2015.

On 12 June, after the Turkish parliament reached a consensus, Turkey despatched a three-member team to Qatar to manage the deployment of more Turkish troops. The troops are expected to work with their Qatari counterparts. They will be headed by a Qatari General, who will be assisted by a Turkish counterpart.

No matter that the agreement to host Turkish troops in Qatar was reached in 2014, the fact that sizeable numbers are being deployed to Qatar at the height of the current crisis will undoubtedly irk the Saudis and their allies. The deployment of these troops to Qatar would appear to indicate that Doha fears Saudi military action is at least possible or that it intends not to back down in the face of growing antagonism from Riyadh and its allies, or both. That can only exacerbate existing tensions in the region. Riyadh will, furthermore, see Turkey’s move as one that denotes that Ankara is further preparing to carry over its Syrian objectives into the GCC domain. Since Turkey more or less aligns with Tehran, and Doha has previously advocated on behalf of Tehran against Riyadh, it would appear that two camps are forming: Ankara, Doha and Tehran on the one side and Riyadh and its allies on the other.

If that is indeed the case, it would be only a matter of time before the schism widens even further and other countries in the region are dragged into the imbroglio. A region already divided will become even more so and little good can come of that.



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