Doha (GPA) – Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s recent visit to Qatar highlights the ongoing fight for Middle East influence and the West is stuck right in the middle.
With the world’s eyes on Turkey following Operation Peace Spring by the Turkish Armed Forces in Northern Syria, Ankara is facing a period of isolation which has left the country looking for new allies to back their ambitions.
Another country that has also been isolated by their closest allies for several years now is Qatar which is what makes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Qatar last week to meet with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of more importance than it may seem. Both Turkey and Qatar – with the backing of the west – are still major regional players in the Middle East but with other local power brokers trying to jam Ankara and Doha back into their roles as subordinates (similar to the Saudis and Israelis) of the US, NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and basically every other institution that comes to mind when you think of the imperial powers.
Turkey and Qatar: alone, together
Though Turkey and Qatar may be isolated by the same western-backed anti-Iranian coalition in the Middle East, Qatar is still vastly wealthy (and home to a US military base) and Turkey still commands the world’s ear when they speak due to their key roles such as their membership in NATO and as the gateway to the EU for millions of migrants. So what exactly did it take for these two major Middle East players to wind up alone but together, how long can it go on, and if it goes too long, what might happen if all this pressure on Doha and Ankara finally becomes too much?
Both Turkey and Qatar’s problems all started around the same time in 2018 as the US and their allies in Riyadh and Tel Aviv started to accelerate their plans to demonize Iran. In hopes that the Trump regime’s vendetta against Tehran would work in their favor, the Saudis – and by extension, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – started making public overtures to Israel in an attempt to build the regional coalition that would aid Washington to topple the Islamic Republic.
Qatar, even as a member of the GCC had always been the outlier and had the tightest diplomatic ties with Iran of any country on the Arabian Peninsula due to a major natural gas field shared by the two nations. This turned out to cause problems between Doha and Riyadh (and by extension Israel) which were amplified by US President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel in which he attempted to whitewash years of Saudi collaboration with radical jihadists like Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) by taking photos with King Salman and Egypt’s military dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi touching an orb and then accusing Iran of being the real puppet masters behind AQ, IS, etc.
While accusing Iran of being the “number one state sponsor of terror” is nothing new, with Saudi ties to terrorism basically being public knowledge in the west thanks to years of leaks and activism after 9/11, the Saudis and Trump decided they needed to make the story more dire. This need for more villains (and to further distance the Saudis from jihadists) ended up with Trump and the GCC agreeing to isolate Qatar for being too soft on Iran and saying that actually it was Doha that had been funding terror groups since the cold war.
The main connection used to craft this narrative tying Iran, Qatar and terrorism ended up being the tiny kingdom’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), who the Saudis have had no problem supporting in the past. While most US officials weren’t a fan of this move due to Qatar being just as close of an ally as the Saudis and home to US troops, Trump encouraged the split in GCC and basically assured the Saudis that he would help make Qatar a scapegoat for crimes Doha and Riyadh had worked together on in the past and that MBS had the green light to fully cut off the Qataris.
This is where Turkey ended up stepping in Qatar. Even though most western leaders and high-level bureaucrats tried to stay neutral in the GCC feud, Erdogan (whose government has also been somewhat soft on Iran in the past) decided to back Qatar. Almost immediately, Erdogan offered more economic cooperation and investment – of extreme importance to Qatar which basically imports everything – and ended up helping broker a massive investment deal between Qatar, Iran, and Turkey within days.
Beyond the economic cooperation, also right after the GCC split, Erdogan pledged to send Turkish troops to Doha to defend from any potential Saudi assault or coup attempt. It was at this point that Erdogan promised to open a new military base in Qatar to further increase cooperation between the two countries.
All of this tension between the GCC and Israel against Iran and whoever is considered their ally also happened to coincide with a growing movement by western powers to punish Turkey. Erdogan and his MB-affiliated Justice and Development Party (AKP) have expansionist ambitions in the region, such as in northern Syria, spreading soft-power religious influence from Pakistan to the Peninsula, and occasionally chastising Israel for human rights abuses (during Turkish election seasons) which often leaves them on the outside of diplomatic machinations being made by the imperialists.
Erdogan has a long history as the leader of Turkey and is very familiar with the way his country is supposed to act as a NATO member when the US gives them an order, but this has become increasingly rare in a country where the majority of voters have an extreme distrust of Washington. Much of this was triggered by the 2016 coup in Turkey which Erdogan still blames some elements in the US but has gradually gotten worse, specifically when Turkey shot down a Russian jet and actually ended up closer to Moscow in the process of resolving the incident.
This is where the real trouble started for Erdogan from the US when it came to Turkey’s plans to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which got them kicked out of the F-35 stealth jet program that they had spent over a decade in with NATO partners. While the US hadn’t really cared about the massive (and ongoing) crackdown in Turkey that started in 2016 this conflict over growing Russia-Turkey ties soon caused anti-Turkey sectors of the US to begin looking for legal ways to punish Turkey for the insolence of buying Russian weapons.
One such way was to crack Turkey over the head was Andrew Brunson, a US-born pastor who had spent decades in Turkey but ended up being arrested after 2016. According to Turkish prosecutors, Brunson was suspected of working with both the followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and Kurdish separatists. This detention led to the first round of sanctions on Turkey by the US and then Turkey placing their own sanctions on Washington.
While there were a lot of factors in place behind the scenes leading up to Turkey’s current financial state, the tariffs placed on Ankara over Brunson shook confidence in the Turkish market. It was during this time that Qatar agreed to new investment in Turkey, making the Emir one of the few real friends Erdogan had at the moment.
Brunson was eventually returned to the United States following talks between high-level officials but Turkey still walked away without absorbing the intended message that Turkey is a client, not its own power. This only caused Turkey to end up flexing on the west and their proxies even harder.
In the background of all these arguments between the West and Turkey over S-400s, F-35s, Kurdish sovereignty, a pastor and millions of refugees Erdogan uses as a prop which he threatens to “unleash” into Europe and further destabilize the neoliberal behemoth, but most importantly, Turkey ended up becoming such a power player in Syria that Russia brought into the Syrian peace negotiation process with Moscow and Tehran.
While this cooperation with Russia bothers the US it isn’t necessarily what has triggered the opposing regional powers to suddenly turn on Turkey. However, Turkey’s invitation into the peace talks (and the US and their allies exclusion) caused panic in Tel Aviv and Riyadh because not only did it legitimize Turkey as a regional power but it was an admission by Iran and Russia that Turkey had basically won control over the majority of the Syrian “rebels” and was the best conduit to negotiate for terror groups ranging from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and other “moderates” to Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian AQ affiliate later rebranded Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and even IS (who the Turks spent years purchasing stolen Syrian resources from and allowing fighters to cross their border at will).
Despite starting the project to topple Assad together, now it seems that as Donald Trump is losing interest in protecting Kurdish-led proxies which has angered the other anti-Bashar Assad states like Israel, which was hoping to illegally develop some type of Kurdish state to basically manufacture a new ally in the region. Israel may be able to live without a “Kurdistan” but Turkey’s growing status also was a huge sign to the leaders of the GCC that their Wahhabi proxies had lost the fight in Syria to control the “resistance” to Assad, but it is now clear that Ankara has become the major representative and supporter of the majority of the remaining anti-Assad Salafist forces.
While Trump obviously doesn’t seem too concerned with what’s going on in Syria and usually only makes anti-Turkish decisions after massive backlash from the media – and sometimes his own cabinet – this growing Turkish influence is likely worrying to the Saudis.
To make things worse for Saudi Arabia, Turkey also started leaking details of the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. It’s unclear how the Saudis thought they’d get away with this murder in the Turkish surveillance state but in the long run, it didn’t seem to matter and Trump just ended up using the murder to force the Saudis to buy more arms.
Turkey has also been a target of forces in Saudi Arabia and Israel specifically for a similar “crime” to that of Qatar, being too cozy with Iran. Turkey under Erdogan has been working closely with Iran even going so far as to help Tehran break US sanctions before Former President Obama negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran by trading Turkish gold through shell companies for Iranian oil. Several Turkish bankers were charged with sanctions violations in US court late in the Obama regime (although one banker convicted has returned to Turkey and now runs the Istanbul stock exchange).
All types of transgressions by Turkey have been punished by Washington at one point or another but they still caused the rift between NATO-member Turkey and the US-backed client states of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The clear victory in the influence war with the Syrian “rebels,” occasional criticism of Israeli crimes by Erdogan, exporting a neo-Ottoman Salafism that poses a threat to the Saudis own violent doctrine, and assaults on the only western proxy fit to show on television: the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria.
The United States: walking the tightrope
So with all of these key US allies fighting to play the role of top dog in the Middle East region how exactly does the US keep them all in line? The answer to that is extremely complicated but here’s as brief of a rundown as possible:
When it comes to Qatar, the isolation of Doha on behalf of the Saudis isn’t much of a priority for the US, seeing as both countries militaries participated in a joint military exercise called Eastern Action. These military maneuvers show that the US and Qatar are still cooperating and likely doing things like Eastern Action to further intimidate Iran. On top of that, it also seems the Saudis may be getting nervous about how close Qatar and Turkey are getting and may be trying to reverse this. Just a few days after Erdogan’s trip to Qatar, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani popped up on an unannounced visit to Riyadh and with the GCC summit coming up this is the Saudi’s chance to mend fences with Qatar.
However, one of the new Saudi demands that has been made of Qatar since the blockade started is the closing of the new Turkish military base in Qatar which Erdogan’s visit was celebrating. While Turkey has yet to comment on this demand it seems unlikely they’ll comply since Erdogan was literally just in Qatar to celebrate this new level of military cooperation between the two countries and bragged about how Turkey was helping to ensure “regional stability.”
This means it’s all very likely Erdogan isn’t going to do anything Saudi Arabia demands but there is still one problem he has to deal with, the United States.
As the second-largest military in NATO and one of the largest exporters of consumer goods to the EU, Turkey has billions of dollars worth of reasons to try to stay in good graces with the West. However, as a nation run by a mixture of nationalists and Erdogan’s religious Ottoman revisionists there is also a desire to break free from some of Washington and Brussel’s influence by doing things like buying arms from Russia and looking to open more economic channels with China but this puts them at risk of losing things like rights to licenses to sell NATO arms and could cut them off from European markets.
These massive sales of arms and goods to Turkey by the US and Europe are one of the main reasons that the western powers have still not tried to kick Turkey out of NATO. On top of the arms sales and tech transfers to Turkey, this second-largest NATO military is obviously important to the US. If Washington didn’t have Turkey to do things like continue to occupy northern Syria in continuation of the goal of balkanization, the US military would have to do it themselves (which we know Trump isn’t a fan of).
Turkey has another problem too, and that is that it is unlikely they’d ever be fully accepted into the Russian sphere of influence. Turkey may have a seat at the Syria negotiations and bought some S-400s but this only goes so far and since Ankara still makes moves to undermine Russian geopolitical goals.
Starting with Syria, where Turkey may be a negotiating partner, it is still unlikely the goals of Ankara will ever be compatible with those of Moscow and Damascus. While Russia has agreed to joint patrols with the Turks in northern Syria to try to calm some of the violence in formerly YPG-held areas, Turkish-backed rebels continue to actively fight the YPG, Russian forces and the legitimate Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to this day. Basically, the only reason Turkey is at the bargaining table is because they’re the only real conduit left to these rebels but at the same time the Turks have had other uses for groups like the FSA. Russia and Turkey may be working together for now in the northeast of Syria but if the story of Operation Peace Spring ends up like Turkey’s earlier Syria incursions, these areas will soon be full of Turkish schools and have Arab refugees rearranging the general demographics of northern Syria from Afrin to Manbij.
There are also other possible geopolitical fires that could start at any time between Russia and Turkey. For example, Turkey recently signed an agreement with the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Libya redrawing maritime borders of waters that are legally the territory of Cyprus and Greece. Beyond the fact that this move is a blatant violation of international law, it is also in opposition to Russia’s Libya policy of backing the House of Representative’s government.
Turkey also recently just celebrated the opening of the new TANAP oil pipeline that delivers natural gas from Azerbaijan, through Turkey and finally into Greece and the wider EU. This helps the EU resolve a problem they’ve been having the past few years with the wider imperialist campaign against Russia making countries like Germany worried about how dependent they are on Russian pipelines to keep gas flowing into the EU. This is all part of an $8.5 billion dollar plan by the EU to secure new pipeline routes like this one and to further isolate Russia, which Turkey is assisting in.
When the Saudis have fears, Trump knows how to handle them. King Salman and his dipshit son can be bought off with arms deals, promises of more US troops to protect Aramco oil fields and allowing them to murder Washington Post journalists. When it comes to Turkey though, appeasing Erdogan is a lot harder for a man with the special type of brain disease Trump has.
Fortunately for Trump, Erdogan often just tells Trump what it will take to keep him in the western orbit like moving US troops to clear the way for Operation Peace Spring but not only that, these moves like new pipelines, occupying northern Syria, and backing radical jihadists groups as far as Nigeria and China are more in line with US objectives than those of Russia. While Erdogan may flirt with Putin, most of this is done to put pressure on the US.
Even now, Turkey has used its veto power in NATO to block a move to bolster defenses in the Baltics and Poland. While this may look like it is something beneficial to Russia and liberals will likely believe this somehow connects Putin to Erdogan to Putin it is actually all still about Erdogan. With NATO working so closely with the YPG over the past several years in Syria, Turkey is actually blocking this new defense plan until NATO recognizes the Kurdish-led group as a terror organization.
This is the lens that Turkey needs to be looked at through. Erdogan is looking out for his interests all day, every day. The more the world tries to isolate Turkey, the more they feed Erdogan’s narratives of an aggrieved nation, disrespected by the world powers which only inflames Turkish ambitions even more. Erdogan wants Turkey to be a power in the MENA region and in the wider global Muslim community and if it takes playing East and West off each other to get what he wants, Erdogan will do it as long as he can hold power. New foreign bases, currency swaps of Qatari and Turkish currencies, selling tanks to Qatar and all these other moves by Turkey are just steps toward Erdogan’s goals.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.