July 2, 2017
After a few days of make-believe mediation between the parties, Turkey has become Qatar’s staunchest supporter in the Gulf crisis. Because, the thirteen-point ultimatum presented to Qatar also includes the immediate termination of Turkish military presence in Qatar and the ending of any joint military cooperation with Turkey in Qatar. President Erdogan called this an act of disrespect towards Turkey. Apparently, Turkey also approached Saudi Arabia for building a military base there, but the offer was rejected.
The rational of our having a base in Qatar has never been properly explained to the Turkish public. Qatar has a population of 2.3 million and only less than 300,000 are Qatari citizens. It has a correspondingly small army. If this was just a matter providing military training to a friendly country, why need a base? If the two countries faced “common” threats, what were these? Only some years ago we were saying that that Turkey and Syria faced such threats but in the Middle East perceptions can change dramatically and in no time. Was the base an effort to counter-balance Iran? If so, how come today Iran and Turkey appear to be on the same side of the Gulf crisis? Was the base envisaged a low-cost instrument of power projection, neo-Ottoman dreams? Or, was it simply a display of the Turkish government’s unwavering solidarity with the Qatari leadership?
And, should the crisis escalate, what are the tools available to Turkey to reinforce its one hundred troops at its Qatar base? Are we going to undertake a huge military airlift via Iraq and Iran or are we going to ask Egypt to allow us send reinforcements through the Suez Canal? Does the government have a tripwire policy?
Whatever the underlying reasons, Turkey’s building a base in Qatar has proved to be a bad investment.
As for the Gulf crisis, it is clear that the ten-day, thirteen-point ultimatum delivered to Qatar conforms neither to international law nor to the UN Charter. Its expiry will probably be followed by new measures to bring Doha into line. Among the demands contained in the ultimatum, “ending support to terrorist groups” reflects a very serious charge which under normal circumstances would require a convincing response. However, the reality is that as Syria’s internal troubles turned into proxy wars, such charges have lost much of their significance.
On February 22, 2016 the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Annexed to the Joint Statement was “Terms for Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Under these terms, Russia and the US were expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which were excluded from the cessation of hostilities.
It may be worth remembering in this respect that when the ISSG had met in Vienna earlier, on November 14, 2015, Jordan agreed to help develop a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists, with a target of completion by the beginning of the political process under UN auspices. The UNSC, through Resolution 2254, welcomed the effort being conducted by Jordan and expressed a readiness to consider expeditiously the recommendation of the ISSG for the purpose of determining terrorist groups. This is yet to happen. On the contrary, agreement on who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist” has proved to be an insurmountable task in a region characterized by divisions, shady groups, murky relationships and shifting alliances. The Syrian conflict has been a dirty war reversing a fundamental principle of law. Here, that principle has evolved into “guilty until proven innocent”. So, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Is the current Gulf crisis policy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) Turkey’s only option? In other words, should Ankara continue trying to divide the anti-Qatar bloc by cajoling the Saudi leadership while accusing others; give political/diplomatic/military support to Doha and hope that Washington will weigh in? Or should Ankara adopt a more conciliatory approach and focus its attention on developments in Syria and Iraq. Because, after repeatedly stating for the last six years that “there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict”, the parties involved including Turkey, are now jockeying for positions of strength for the post-ISIS phase of the tragedy. To put it bluntly, at this particular juncture, Qatar can’t be Ankara’s one and only friend in the world and Ankara can’t keep engaging in more and more battles.
Perhaps, Ankara could consider saying that provided the Gulf states reach agreement among themselves on the other twelve points of the thirteen-point ultimatum, then Ankara, in full consultation with all those involved, would do its best to resolve the remaining one. Because, Ataturk’s motto was “peace at home, peace in the world” and at present we seem to have neither.
In a world of uncertainty, transformation and perhaps realignment, this week’s G-20 meeting in Hamburg is going to be quite a challenge for many participants. This is a time for Ankara to act with reason and a long-term view of Turkey’s national interests.