Analysis: Why is Turkey deploying troops to Qatar?

Turkey’s decision is not necessarily anti-Saudi, but it is definitely pro-Qatari, say analysts.

Turkey Qatar
Turkey and Qatar have a long history of being on the same side of regional conflicts and developments [Kayhan Ozer/AP]

Only two days after Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic relations with Qatar for its alleged support of “terrorist organisations”, Turkey’s parliament has ratified military deals allowing its troops to be deployed to a Turkish military base in Qatar. Turkish analysts talking to Al Jazeera interpreted the move as “an apparent show of support for Qatar”. 

“This indeed suggests that Turkey sees its defence ties with Qatar as an indispensable pillar of its strategic posture in the region,” Can Kasapoglu, a defence analyst from Turkey’s EDAM, told Al Jazeera. “It also shows that Ankara would not drastically alter its long-term vision for regional fluctuations.”

“Turkey has had a base and soldiers in Qatar for a while,” Kadir Ustun, the executive director of the SETA Foundation in Washington, DC, explained. “Increasing Turkish presence there at this point might be an attempt to reassure Qatar.”

Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, its first such installation in the Middle East, as part of an agreement signed in 2014. The base, which has a capacity to accommodate up to 5,000 troops, already hosts 200 Turkish soldiers. 

Late on Wednesday, two deals were ratified in Turkey’s parliament; one allowing Turkish troops to be deployed in Qatar and another approving an accord between the two countries on military training cooperation.

Both agreements, which were drawn up before the spat between Qatar and its neighbours erupted, were brought to parliament by MPs from Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in an extraordinary session.

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A power projection asset

“The military base in Qatar is an important power projection asset for Turkey,” said Kasapoglu. “Turkey has always considered Qatar an important strategic ally in the region, and it is using this base to demonstrate this view.”

Yet analysts added that it is important not to read Turkey’s decision to deploy troops in to Qatar as “picking a side” in the spat that rocked the Gulf.

“Turkey’s military base in Qatar has always been, and still is, a symbolic gesture and nothing more,” said Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Istanbul’s Global Source Partners.

“While Turkey values its partnership with Qatar, and does not approve the foreign policy vision Saudi Arabia is trying to enforce on the small but influential emirate, it is also not willing to – and can not afford to – pick a fight with Riyadh”.

“The ratification of the military treaties is not an anti-Saudi move at all,” Kasapoglu added. “Turkey still sticks to ‘I don’t want problems between my two good friends’ policy.

“Yet, although this is not an anti-Saudi position, it is a pro-Qatari one for sure. Ankara prioritised its geopolitical perspective, and showed that it holds its military presence [in Qatar] above the recent diplomatic crisis.”

On the same side

Turkey and Qatar have a long history of being on the same side of regional conflicts and developments. They both provided support for the Egyptian revolution and condemned the military coup that brought the country’s current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in to power.

Riyadh is viewing Iran as an existential threat, yet Qatar, much like Turkey, has been following a rather complicated and multilayered strategy against Iran.

by Atilla Yesilada, political analyst

They also refuse to classify Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as “terrorist organisations” and they both backed rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Their partnership in regional politics gained further strength after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani showed strong support for the Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during and after last July’s failed coup attempt.

Qatar and Turkey are also following a similar strategy “of balance” in their relations with Iran. Analysts explained that at the moment Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with Donald Trump’s support and encouragement, are trying to form a unified front to isolate Iran completely.

Qatar, as a result of its refusal to follow a hawkish strategy against the Islamic Republic, is being perceived as the “weakest link” in this anti-Iran Gulf alliance, analysts said. 

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Turkey, with its strong trade links to Iran and apparent unwillingness to have a confrontation with its neighbour, is supporting Doha’s appoach to the Iranian threat.

“Riyadh is viewing Iran as an existential threat, yet Qatar, much like Turkey, has been following a rather complicated and multilayered strategy against Iran,” said Yesilada.

“Turkey is in loggerheads with Iran in Iraq and Syria, but it is also continuing its growing trade relationship with this neighbour – and this compartmentalised relationship is making Riyadh question the strength of Turkey’s position in the alliance that is forming against Iran in the Middle East”.

“Their attitude towards Iran is putting Qatar and Turkey in the same camp, once again.”

Analysts explained that Turkey would do everything it can to resist the US and Saudi pressure to turn its historic rivalry with Iran into enmity. “Turkey and Iran had long been compertmentalising their relations,” Kasapoglu explained.

“They faced each other in Iraq and Syria, but this did not stop the Iranian Foreign Minister from visiting Turkey, or affected the two countries’ trade relations.”

“Turkey agrees to many aspects of Qatar’s foreign policy vision, and President Erdogan made it clear that he does not agree with the accusations Riyadh directed at Qatar,” Yesilada said. “On subjects like Palestine, Egypt, Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, two countries are definitely on the same page.”

“But this does not mean Turkey is willing to jeopardise its relations with Saudi Arabia or the UAE.”

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Resolving the crisis through dialogue

Turkey also enjoys strong political and economic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The two countries signed a special agreement in April last year to establish a team specifically tasked with strengthening bilateral trade ties.

“Turkey wants to increase its share in the global arms trade,” said Kasapoglu. “Ankara believes this is a prerequisite to becoming a global power and it rightly identifies Saudi Arabia as a sustainable and hungry market.”

“Turkey is expected to sign a major export deal to sell several national corvettes to Saudi Arabia in the near future,” he added. “If the deal comes to fruition, it is going to be Turkey’s largest arms export deal to this day and Ankara is not eager to jeopardise this opportunity.”

Yesilada pointed out that Turkey also needs Saudi Arabia to stay a “trusted strategic partner”.

“Ankara is aware of Riyadh’s growing friendship with the new US administration and it wants to open up a new channel for dialogue with Donald Trump through Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Of course, this does not mean Turkey is going to abandon Qatar, but it is safe to say that Ankara won’t be openly positioning itself against Riyadh.”

Turkey supports resolving the crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) through diplomacy, Ustun said. “I think Turkey is not interested in being seen as on ‘one side’ of a dispute like this,” he added. 

“At the moment, Turkey does not want anybody to ‘win’ the conflict that is ripping apart the GCC,” Kasapoglu said. “Turkey wants the GCC to swiftly solve its internal problems and show a unified front to the world and to their mutual adversaries.”