Turkey-Qatar: Quo Vadis?

Turkey-Qatar: Quo Vadis?

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited the capital of Qatar, Doha, this week for the first time during his term as prime minister. The timing of the trip is far from coincidental. Turkey has become a systematic target of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) along its borders with Syria, forcing it to find an urgent solution. And Qatar is Turkey’s regional ally with which it shares almost an identical Syrian policy. 

The fact that Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu first visited Saudi Arabia before the United Arab Emirates last week completes this picture.

By hitting Turkey’s border towns with Katyusha rockets, ISIL is giving Ankara the message “get your hands out of Syria,” as Turkey has been supporting Syrian opposition groups such as the “moderate opposition,” along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Turkey has also tightened security measures and stepped up the military build-up along its borders. On top of that, it is waiting for a number of unmanned aerial vehicles from the U.S., which are just about to arrive. That is also partly why ISIL has intensified its counter-strikes.

What’s more, clashes between ISIL and opposition groups have lately intensified just across Turkey’s borders, especially in Azez, which has been under ISIL’s control for two years. The Bashar al-Assad regime also seems to have stepped up its attacks against opposition groups around Aleppo. This rising tension across Turkey’s borders is automatically reflected within its territory.

Indeed, the ceasefire in Syria, which had been holding since February even if with great difficulty, has now collapsed. On the very same day as Davutoğlu was in Doha, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura declared that one Syrian has been killed every 25 minutes over the last 48 hours. Amid all this, the planned third round of the Geneva talks has also been frozen. 

In this situation, Doha’s collaboration is of existential importance for Ankara. The joint military base in Doha that the two countries opened on Thursday also has symbolic importance and meaning in terms of power projection. 

Beyond these, the U.S. has started to rely more and more on the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds. President Barack Obama just announced that he will send 250 additional soldiers to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are led by the PYD, on the ground. Washington is allegedly planning to start a big operation in northern Syria between Azez and Jarablus, relying on the PYD as the ground force. 

Ankara, on the other hand, continues to ask Washington to supply more aid to the “moderate” opposition groups. It also tells the U.S. that it could support these groups on the ground against ISIL, “but only if the U.S. moves on from the PYD.” But the U.S. does not comply. 

Meanwhile, Russia has been attacking opposition groups that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been supporting. It also accuses the U.S. administration of “appeasing its regional partners by ignoring the presence of terrorists among opposition forces it backs,” just as the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry did last week.

As the U.S. is dependent on Russia for finding a political solution for Syria, it has in recent months started to come to terms with Russia’s Syria policy. As a result, it might cut off its support for the Syrian opposition even more and rely further on the PYD, which Russia is also supporting.

Obama just returned from his trip to the Gulf. The U.S.’s currently sour relations with Gulf countries – over the nuclear deal with Iran and the bill in Congress that would open the door to suing Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks - left their mark on Obama’s visit. These factors are buffeting the U.S.’s alliance with the Gulf and pushing Washington closer to Russia and the PYD.

This is the context and the bigger picture that is pushing Ankara and Doha closer to each other. 

In Syria, al-Assad is becoming more and more lasting. He is just about to launch a big ground operation around Aleppo together with Russia. Obama said last week that “it would be a mistake to send Western troops into Syria to overthrow al-Assad.”

Ankara stands together with the Gulf countries saying that “al-Assad must go.” Yet other members of the anti-ISIL coalition have recently been abandoning this stance, one by one.

This is why Prime Minister Davutoğlu said in his question-answer session with journalists in Doha that the joint basis shared by Turkey and Qatar is their joint vision. He emphasized that the policies of the two countries regarding Syria, Yemen and Libya since the “Arab Spring” have fully overlapped. However, the balance of power has always been under the domination of the “great powers.” As long as the discrepancy with the U.S. and Russia continues, it would be far from reality to expect cooperation with the Gulf to substantially change the equation on the ground.