Turkey’s reaction to the rift among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—the June 5, 2017 embargo imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt against Qatar for its alleged support to terrorism—has been significant. Within two days of the Saudi-led quartet announcing the severing of ties with Qatar, Turkey’s parliament approved a bill for deploying troops in the Turkish military base at Doha. The bill had been pending for approval since early May 2017 and its approval was hastened by the surprise developments in the Gulf. Turkey’s military base in Qatar, its first in the Arab world, was established in April 2016 in accordance with a December 2014 defence agreement between the two countries. Its aim was to bolster security and stability in the Gulf and, at that time, was welcomed by Saudi Arabia as a move to counter the growing regional influence of Iran and the US ignoring Arab Gulf countries’ concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal. Given the changed circumstances in the wake of the embargo imposed on Qatar, Riyadh along with Abu Dhabi, Manama and Cairo opposed Turkey’s decision to deploy troops in its military base in Doha. The 13 demands, which Saudi Arabia and UAE raised on June 23 as a pre-condition for negotiating an end to the embargo against Qatar, and which was modified on July 19 to six principles, included the closure of the Turkish military base.
Turkey and Qatar not only rejected the call to shut down the military base but termed the demand as against international law and interference in their bilateral ties. Though the demand for the closure of the Turkish military base in Doha was subsequently dropped from the six principles, the Saudi and Emirati opposition to the Turkish deployment of troops and plans for a joint military exercise did not end. Turkey has been sending military personnel to its base in Doha since the parliamentary approval, and on July 18 Ankara sent five armoured vehicles and 23 military personnel to raise the total number of troops deployed in Doha to more than 100. At the time, the Turkish Defence Minister, Fikri Isik, had said that Turkey will raise the number of its personnel in the base to 1,000 in the coming months and form a joint command with Doha that will be headed by a Qatari major general with a Turkish brigadier general as deputy commander. Going ahead with the plan, despite the reservations raised by Saudi Arabia and UAE, Turkish and Qatari militaries conducted a two-day (August 7-8) joint military exercise in the Gulf. The exercise, dubbed Iron Shield, included naval drills and joint training among infantry and artillery divisions of the two militaries. Eventually, Turkey plans to increase the number of its troops in Qatar to 3,000 and maintain a brigade in its Doha base.
The regional reaction to the joint military exercise and increased deployment of Turkish troops in Doha has been mixed. The four Arab countries at the forefront of the boycott of Qatar have criticized Turkey for meddling in Arab affairs. Saudi Arabia has been cold to Turkish overtures and not only refused President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s offer to mediate the crisis but also rejected the Turkish offer to build a military base in the Kingdom as well. Days after Erdoğan’s offer to build a base in Saudi Arabia, a statement by the Saudi Press Agency said, “Saudi Arabia cannot allow Turkey to establish military bases on its territories” as its “armed forces and military capabilities are at the best level.” Later, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir issued a statement articulating the Saudi position that Riyadh wants Arab issues to be resolved by Arab countries themselves. The UAE and Egypt were more vehement in criticizing the Turkish moves. In a series of tweets, Anwar Gargash, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, criticized Turkey for coming to Qatar’s rescue. For its part, Egypt urged the four Arab countries to expand the boycott of Qatar to include Turkey.
In contrast, the Iranian reaction has been subtle and measured. Tehran had maintained silence when Turkey first decided to establish its military base in Doha with the aim of countering Iran’s growing influence in the region. Although Iran was one of the first countries to offer help to Qatar after the Saudi-led coalition announced its embargo, it had at the same time stated that it would maintain a neutral position in the intra-GCC rift. But this Iranian posture changed after Qatar’s decision in August to restore full diplomatic ties with Tehran, which had earlier been suspended in January 2016 in support of Saudi Arabia’s decision to sever ties with Iran over incidents of arson in the Saudi embassy in Tehran and at the consulate in Mashhad after the execution of the Saudi Shia dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Qatar’s move further angered Saudi Arabia and UAE, but was expectedly welcomed by Tehran. The spokesperson of the Iranian foreign ministry, Bahram Qassemi, stated that “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s principled and permanent policy has been and will be enhancing relations with all its neighbours.” This was a clear indication of a better understanding emerging between Tehran and Doha after the Qatar crisis to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and UAE since one of the primary triggers for the embargo against Doha was its perceived cosying up to Tehran. While Doha and Tehran continue to improve relations, the Iranian response to the Turkish base and military exercise is also conditioned by strategic considerations in Iraq and Syria where it is working with Turkey to restore peace.
For Turkey, the decision to support of Qatar is driven by both strategic and ideological considerations. Ankara and Doha are the two Middle East capitals which have extended support to “moderate” Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Both had extended support to the Mohammed Morsi government in Egypt and had condemned the removal of the democratically elected president in July 2013. Ideological affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood had brought Turkey and Qatar closer soon after the outburst of popular anger in the form of the Arab Spring and they had been working together to support Islamist groups in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya. Further, Turkey’s strategic ambitions in the Middle East have led to a recalibration of its foreign policy since the coming to power of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2002. It propelled Turkey to take a keen interest in Arab affairs and made it intervene in neighbouring Syria and Iraq as violence erupted in these two countries in 2011-12. The Turkish decision to fast track the deployment of its troops in Doha soon after the eruption of the Qatar crisis is part of Ankara’s strategic ambitions to play a larger role in the Middle East. It not only makes Ankara a stakeholder in regional affairs but also gives it a forward military position to project power in the Gulf.
The Turkish military base in Doha and the joint Turkey-Qatar military exercise will provide Ankara a strategic presence in the Gulf. While Turkish leaders and government officials have tried to talk down the significance of the move by emphasising that it is a step towards ensuring security and stability in the Gulf and not aimed at any specific adversary, many Turkish commentators have termed the establishment of the base as the return of the Turks to the Arabian Peninsula. Such references emanate from the penchant among Turkish Islamists to see the Middle East as a natural sphere of influence. The nostalgia among a section of Turkey’s ruling party to recreate the Ottoman past through economic and geopolitical integration has been the driving force behind Ankara’s recent assertive postures in regional matters including the Qatar crisis. The establishment of a Turkish military base in Doha is part of the AKP’s plan of gaining “strategic depth” in the Middle East. It is a different matter that such postures may polarize the already fragile regional geopolitical situation and become a strategic liability for Ankara.