Saudi Arabia’s decision to isolate Qatar presents a very challenging dilemma for Turkey after the country has recently decided to pursue a regional policy based on a realist school and renewed its ties with Riyadh. At the same time, for Turkish leaders, Qatar is an old friend that has backed Ankara in moments of crisis, the latest example, during the July 15 coup attempt.
Since former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was relieved of his duties in 2015, Ankara has been trying to have at least functional relations with the actors in its neighborhood, with the only exception of the Assad regime in Damascus. Turkey’s rapprochement with the Gulf was part of this broader understanding.
The move was also designed partly to counter the Obama administration’s appeasement policy concerning Iran and its proxies in the region. Ankara wanted to reconnect with traditional U.S. allies to reassure its immediate security and allow the economy to flourish by boosting trade.
Ankara, sooner than expected, found a new ruler in Saudi Arabia, who at least initially, seemed more tolerant of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and was more focused on regional unity against Iran’s overreaching dreams in the region. But, U.S. President Donald Trump’s emergence apparently changed the Saudi thinking and the young Qatari Emir’s decision to shrink the Al Jazeera network or kicking some Hamas members out of the country or pushing Hamas to moderate itself suddenly weren’t enough for Riyadh.
Trump and his administration are willing to partner up against the Muslim Brotherhood and so are its allies in the region and they actively promote the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, Turkey quietly debated pulling its relative support from Islamist groups across the region and reconfiguring its policy, vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood.
Amid these foreign policy reconsiderations and Turkey’s Trump disappointment in Syria’s Raqqa and extradition of Fetullah Gülen, the Saudi move basically shocked Ankara.
A confused Erdoğan, who spoke with almost every regional leader following the Gulf showdown, said Tuesday that he suspected there was a play in this crisis but “don’t know who is behind this yet.”
Meanwhile, CNN on Tuesday reported that the U.S. authorities believed Russian hackers were responsible for planting fake remarks in stories run by Qatar’s state news agency, which quoted the Qatari Emir against a U.S.-Saudi partnership to counter Iran, something widely considered the last straw that provoked Riyadh.
Turkey is also uneasy because it suspects that the Saudi-led imposition against Qatar can eventually find its way to the Turkish leadership, and if supported by a greater power, can target Ankara due to Turkey’s relations with the Brotherhood.
This is why Turkey is really trying to figure out what really led to the Saudi reaction before taking a bold step against any actor involved in this crisis.
It seems like the Saudis want Qatar to take a decisive stance against Iran and fall in line. Galip Dalay, a prominent Turkey expert and a research director at the Al Sharq Forum, said the Saudis would like to “Bahrainize” Qatar, meaning they want to see a Saudi proxy in Doha.
This concerns Turkey because Ankara has a similar attitude towards Iran. No doubt, Turkey believes its national security is frequently threatened by Iran or its proxies, but it also needs Iranian natural resources until it finds an alternative.
Ankara believes that the Saudi-led coalition backed by Trump would like to press Turkey to become an Iranian bulwark that could destroy long-standing and functioning relations with Tehran. And the plot against Qatar might be the beginning of everything.
No doubt Turkey is once again being tested, and I hope that it will survive this crisis with a dignified, yet realist stance.