As the Arab Spring got underway, Turkey and Qatar came together on what seemed to be the right side of history. Now, all their regional bets have all but collapsed, as have their regional swagger. But their joint interests and partnerships are still relevant.
Geneva/Doha - The recent visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the State of Qatar offers a chance to assess the relationship of two regional actors whose actions in the foreign policy sphere have increasingly begun to mirror each other.
Qatar has seen a number of regional policy initiatives fail to produce their intended aims, and as the country retreats from a region which has largely grown distrustful of it, it must contend with how its actions have brought it into tensions with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran, yet drawn it closer to Turkey.
For Turkey, the relationship with Doha represents a rare bright spot for the country’s troubled foreign policy. Qatar is one of the few states that Turkey continues to cooperate closely with on almost every regional issue. Yet, it is unclear whether or not the Turkish-Qatari relationship is built to last. The backbone of the relationship is both nations’ ambitious agenda to try and manage the Syrian revolution, combined with favouritism toward opposition groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood through which they work to assert their interests.
The goal of both is a regional reordering that favours politically Islamist actors and seeks to unify the region in a way that they both believe is more representative for the peoples of North Africa and the Levant. Ankara believes that this would come about via the ballot box should the people be allowed to freely elect their leaders, whereas Qatar is less concerned about the spread of democracy preferring policies which allow ‘the will of the people’ to be expressed but never accurately defining what this means. This ambiguity from Doha means that over time it is unclear if the two side’s current shared interests extend beyond the politics of the present.
Backing the Wrong Horse
The two countries’ mutual embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood prompted both to financially and politically support Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. However, after the military coup the two sides chose to express their displeasure in different ways. Doha opted to quietly accept the status quo, despite being fiercely opposed to it in private. Whereas in Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan sought to use the event for domestic political gain. Erdogan therefore tried to draw parallels between Turkey and Egypt, even though his harsh anti-military rhetoric eventually prompted Egypt to expel the Turkish ambassador and downgrade ties. This difference underscores one of the core differences between the two countries, namely that Turkey is an imperfect democracy in contrast to Qatar’s monarchy which has yet to begin its own experiment with democratic reforms. The political differences move in tandem with the cultural and ethnic differences stemming from the Arab-Turkish divide and differing perceptions of Ottoman history in the Middle East.
Yet, while the two sides shared the same long-term interests in Egypt, it is Syria that has pulled the interests of Ankara and Doha into a close working alignment. The leadership in both countries were deeply disturbed at the images of human suffering in Syria and have become wedded to a policy removing Bashar al Assad, through a combination of military pressure designed to make Assad realise that he cannot win, and diplomatic initiative to force him to relinquish power.
Following the collapse of the Arab League monitoring mission and in the absence of any meaningful international solution, Qatar and Turkey broke ranks and decided to manage the conflict by themselves. Armed rebel groups operating in the rural areas around Idlib and Aleppo were actively supported by both Qatar and Turkey, who viewed the establishment of a rebel foothold in the north of the country as a necessary step to help hasten the downfall of Assad.
The two countries increasingly joined forces to facilitate the movement of money, weaponry and personnel across the Turkey-Syria border, Qatari money in the form of undisclosed cash payments funnelled through Lebanese and Turkish middle men and made its way to Syrian commanders in the border towns to then distribute to chosen groupings inside Syria.
As well meaning as it might have been, the Turkey-Qatari axis was fraught with problems: corrupt middlemen, rapidly shifting alliance structures inside Syria, and shoddy data gathering ensured that weapons and money often ended up in the wrong hands. For all its coordination with Western powers and Arab Sunni states, the project to supply rebel groups descended into a chaotic farce, with quantifiable procedures quickly collapsing and ‘moderate‘ groups missing out on funds and weapons, while more hardline Islamist groups benefited at their expense.
Turkey and Qatar intended their arming of the opposition to act in concert with their political efforts to organise the Syrian opposition. The original policy was for the rebels to quickly oust Assad and for the Qatari and Turkish backed Syrian National Council (SNC) to quickly fill the post-Assad leadership vacuum. Both felt it best to leave the bulk of Syria’s state institutions in place, so as to prevent a repeat of the de-Baathification policy in post-war Iraq in the early 2000s. The two sides would then leverage their ties with the Syrian opposition to retain influence in the post-Assad Syrian state.
Thus, while the initial urge to intervene in the Syrian conflict came about largely as a result of humanitarian concerns, the policy quickly became geopolitical in scope. The two sides had a strong incentive to work together. Qatar needed Turkey to project power into Syria across its porous border regions, and Turkey needed Qatar to finance the Syrian rebels. The drift of both nations toward the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood operating under the banner of the Syrian National Council was merely a reflection of both wanting to action a fast transition to a post-Assad era. Both the nations viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a trustworthy political group that could be counted on to administer the state once Assad was ousted from power.
Turkey and Qatar’s capability to significantly change the course of events on the ground, however, has always been limited. With robust American intervention absent, the two sides were left to continue to work through their proxies. This policy indirectly undercut their joint efforts to organise the SNC and has now prompted both Turkey and Qatar to begin to support the recent Saudi led efforts to fund, arm, and support a new umbrella rebel group known as the Islamic Front. The introduction of Saudi Arabia as the key backer of the Syrian rebels has proven to be a mixed blessing.
The Collapse of the Regional Strategy
The two allies have realised that for all their assertiveness, hours of diplomacy and money they have little to show for their efforts. Both have run the risk of alienating Iran and Saudi Arabia, and both are now taking steps to reset those relationships on a more positive footing. Neither country is much interested in joining the regional cold war that exists between the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic, but the Ankara-Doha axis is increasingly aware that the veracity of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Levant has serious consequences for the assertion of a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented regional policy that both had sought to enforce across the region. Aspirations for regional change are gone, and the Muslim Brotherhood project has failed.
Both Qatar and Turkey sought to make friends across the region, keeping their borders secure and building assertive footprints across the region. But the tension between making friends and region wide intervention in a war torn Middle East has proved an impossible balancing act to maintain. Turkey is now seeking to return to the core tenets of its ‘zero-problems’ foreign policy, downplay its recent embrace of democracy promotion, and begin to mend relations with scorned neighbours. Meanwhile Doha has shrunk back into its shell, engaging regional players of all stripes and colours in an attempt to appear the friendly non-aligned state it once was.
Does this loss of confidence mark the beginning of the end of the Ankara-Doha pact? Unlikely. Both countries have not sought to retreat from the region overnight. Bashar must still be overthrown, relations with Iran remain tense, and both still disagree with Saudi Arabia about the Muslim Brotherhood. The politics of the moment are still favourable for close cooperation and Turkey and Qatar are likely to continue to cooperate quite closely on a whole host of regional issues.
Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King's College, London and a researcher specialising in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk. Follow him on twitter @aaronstein1.
Michael Stephens is the Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute, Qatar. Follow him on twitter @MStephensGulf