The Qatar Crisis and Turkey: Trump and Erdogan Diverge
June 28, 2017
A number of important issues on the U.S.-Turkey agenda were left unresolved following the first meeting between President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on May 16. The list is dominated by the U.S. reliance on the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, in the intensifying effort to take Raqqa back from ISIS and to directly provide arms to the group to achieve that objective, despite sustained and strident Turkish objections accompanied by threats of military action against YPG-held territory in northern Syria. It also includes the long-stalled extradition request for Fethullah Gulen, who has been accused by Ankara of organizing the failed July 15 coup attempt and Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab’s incarceration and upcoming trial in New York, and, on the American side, the continued detention of U.S. citizen Pastor Brunson in Turkey.
The tensions hidden below the mutual bonhomie displayed at the White House by the two leaders were exacerbated by the violent melee a few hours later near the Turkish ambassador’s residence involving demonstrators and Erdogan’s security detail. This prompted a 397-0 vote in the House of Representatives condemning the violence and calling for action against those involved on June 6 and the unveiling of arrest warrants by the Washington police chief for 12 of Erdogan’s bodyguards on June 15. The relationship between the two leaders is likely to be further strained by their diverging positions on the escalating crisis between Qatar and four other Arab countries as Trump has been behind the latter from the outset, while Erdogan is backing the embattled Gulf state. It is significant in this context that, while both leaders have engaged in extensive telephone diplomacy since the crisis began, they have not spoken to each other despite a statement by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey on June 13 that they would do so in the coming days.
The long-simmering tensions between Qatar and three of its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain—and Egypt, stemming from its maverick foreign policy, in particular, its backing for radical organizations and continued links with Iran, turned into a major test of wills on June 5 when the four countries announced a series of harsh measures designed to isolate and punish Qatar. Four days later, they released a joint statement identifying 59 individuals, who are either nationals or linked to Qatar, together with 12 entities, as “terrorists.” According to the UAE, the connections of these persons and entities to Qatar were “a manifestation of the Qatari Government’s policy of duplicity…which calls for combating terrorism, whilst simultaneously overseeing the financing, supporting and harboring a vast array of terrorist groups and terrorist financing networks.” In addition to Doha’s alleged involvement with radical groups such as Al Nusra and ISIS, there has been resentment of its long-standing ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), symbolized by its willingness to host the Egyptian-born preacher Yusuf Qaradawi, the most prominent ideological figure of the MB, sentenced to death by Egypt in 2015 after the coup that deposed the MB government there two years earlier. The UAE foreign minister declared after the release of the statement that “members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who spread bigotry around the region, should not have a safe haven in Qatar”; Saudi Arabia charged that Qatar was “guilty of adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood”; while Egypt said that its decision to cut off relations was made “after the failure of all attempts to stop Doha’s support for terrorist organizations topped by the Muslim Brotherhood group.”
Despite the pressure, Qatar has remained unrepentant. In an interview on June 8 with Al Jazeera, based in Doha and a direct target of Qatar’s accusers, the Qatari foreign minister set the stage for continued defiance by saying, “We are not ready to surrender and will never be ready to surrender the independence of our foreign policy.” On June 22, the four countries responded by formally conveying to Qatar through Kuwait a list of very tough demands with a 10-day deadline. These included the closing of the Turkish military base in Qatar and the ending of military cooperation with Turkey. They also called for the severing of ties to the MB along with al Qaeda and Fateh al-Sham, the cessation of the funding of radical groups, the handing over of those on the “terror list,” the termination of contacts with the political opposition in the four countries, as well as the scaling down of diplomatic ties and the severance of military and intelligence cooperation with Iran. While there has been no official response from Doha, on June 24 the Qatari foreign minister was reported by Al Jazeera as having rejected the demands.
The Trump Factor
Although the other Gulf States and Egypt have a long history of problems with Qatar, it is clear that their drastic move against it was a byproduct of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last month. On his first overseas trip since his election, Trump made a point of underlining his close alignment with Riyadh, while getting his hosts and the other Muslim leaders invited to Saudi Arabia for the occasion to pledge publicly to fight Jihadists and confront Iran. In their joint statement on May 20, Trump and Saudi King Salman referred to the commitment of the two countries to “disrupt financing of terrorism and advance defense cooperation” and expressed their hope that “responsible governments willing to commit to peace will build upon these efforts to realize these objectives.”
In his first comment on the crisis on June 6, Trump tweeted “During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!” In a second tweet on the same day, he wrote “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” Trump followed up by talking to King Salman on June 6, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE on June 7, and President Abdul Fattah Sisi of Egypt on June 9. He also spoke to Emir Tamim of Qatar on June 7 and offered to “help the parties resolve their differences, including through a meeting at the White House if necessary.” The invitation was duly turned down the next day through a statement by a Qatari official who said that Tamim had “no plans to leave Qatar while the country is under a blockade.”
Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and, in a more discreet fashion, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have continued to advocate restraint and a quick resolution of the crisis, Trump has maintained a conspicuously different track. Having met with both Mohammed bin Zayed and the equally influential Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the main driving forces in the campaign against Qatar, prior to his trip to Riyadh, Trump had then sanctioned an ongoing dialogue between them and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon who are reliably reported to be the main advocates of the tough line on terrorist financing and the isolation of Qatar. It is also interesting to note in the broader Middle East context that Kushner has been charged by Trump with the task of leading the effort to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He is reportedly endeavoring to move to that elusive goal by emphasizing the growing convergence between the Sunni Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and Israel in identifying Iran as the main threat.
Trump escalated his rhetorical support for the countries confronting Qatar at a White House event on June 9. He referred again to his meeting with the Muslim leaders in Riyadh who had “agreed to stop supporting terrorism, whether it be financial, military or even moral support” and continued “Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level, and in the wake of that conference, nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior. So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road, or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided…that the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding—they have to end that funding—and its extremist ideology in terms of funding.” On June 12, Trump provided another comment on the crisis by saying “They are going to stop the funding of terrorism. It’s not an easy fight, but that’s a fight we’re going to win. You have to starve the beast. And we’re going to starve the beast, believe me.” This was immediately acknowledged by a Saudi official who expressed his country’s “welcome of the statements by President Trump in which he called on Qatar to stop funding terrorism” and asserted that “fighting terrorism and extremism is no longer a choice, but rather a commitment.” With Mohammed Bin Salman’s long-anticipated elevation to crown prince on June 21—one day before the demands were transmitted to Doha while Kushner was in Israel—the White House seems set to maintain its support for his tough line on Qatar.
Turkey was understandably wary from the beginning of the crisis as it threatened its ability to be close to both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two countries Erdogan has focused on in recent years. Consequently, its initial response on June 5 was cautious, stating that it was “deeply saddened” and “ready to do its part with a view to finding a swift solution to this disagreement among friendly and brotherly countries.” The following day, Erdogan revealed that he had “initiated contacts” on the crisis by “first speaking with the Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim and expressing regret over the developments.” He said that he had then spoken in the course of two days with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Russia, and France and that Turkey was “doing all we can to resolve the crisis in the Gulf as soon as possible.”
However, Erdogan’s ability to play a mediating role acceptable to both sides was constrained by the close relationship he has developed with Tamim since his elevation to the throne in 2013. It was also undermined by the surprise visit of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif of Iran to Ankara on June 7. The trip raised concerns in Riyadh, as well as in the other Arab capitals confronting Qatar, that these two important non-Arab nations, who participated in the Russian-brokered Astana peace talks on Syria despite backing opposite sides in the long-running civil war, were cooperating in stiffening Tamim’s resolve to resist. These were reinforced by the major airlift of food supplies by Ankara and Tehran, as well as the accelerated approval by the Turkish Parliament, also on June 7, of previously tabled legislation to send more Turkish troops to Qatar in accordance with a mutual defense agreement. The first contingent of the additional soldiers was duly dispatched on June 19.
As the crisis continued, Erdogan’s rhetoric became more supportive of Qatar. On June 6, for example, he said “We welcome and appreciate Qatar’s cool-headed and constructive attitude. We know that Qatar effectively fights against terrorist organizations and trying to isolate Qatar will not contribute to resolving any problem. We will continue to improve our relations with Qatar, whose strong support we have always felt during most difficult times, the July 15 coup attempt in particular…I hope all sanctions against Qatar will be lifted as soon as possible. I see describing Qatar as a terror suspect as a truly gross accusation because I have got to know them very well during my 15-year-long term as Prime Minister and President.”
In the same speech, Erdogan gave voice to concerns that Qatar was being targeted as part of a wide conspiracy. “There is a different game being played here. However, we have not been able to identify who is behind it.” On June 9, after reiterating his support for Qatar by saying “We will continue to give Qatar all kinds of support…We will not leave our Qatari brothers and sisters alone.” He continued “It is just not right to waste our energy while dirty plans have been put into effect concerning the future of our region…The winner of such a fight will be the circles that feed off of the instability, tensions, blood, and tears in our region. Indeed, the agents of crisis have not been shy about expressing their happiness over these matters from the very beginning…We must foil this plot and take the wind out of the sails of merchants of chaos.” He continued “We did not sign the agreement in defense industry with Qatar today. It is a two-three-year process. We have just passed it in our parliament. Now, I ask our friends in the Gulf, why are you not bothered by the US base in Qatar? Other countries have bases there. Why are you not bothered by them? I also made a proposal to those, who now say they are bothered, and said ‘We can establish a base in your countries, too.’ Then, they said ‘we will evaluate it’ and now, they are bothered by it.”
On June 13, in a formal address in Parliament after a conference call with Tamim and President Emmanuel Macron of France, Erdogan said “Isolating the people of a country in every field from food-drink to travel and from trade to worship is not humane. Nor is it in line with Islam. We find it unacceptable to use such methods…What is in question here is a country sentenced to death…Without the support of Turkey and Qatar, it would not be possible for the Syrian opposition to resist against Daesh and the tyrannical regime.” The following day, Cavusoglu became the first foreign minister to visit Qatar since the beginning of the crisis, accompanied by Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekci also of Turkey. According to the Qatar Foreign Ministry, Cavusoglu “reiterated his country’s solidarity with Qatar, stressing that Qatar deserved the respect of everyone by exercising self-restraint and not escalating.”
Four days later, Erdogan repeated that he did “not find the accusations and sanctions against Qatar justified.” However, he coupled this with a reference to the visit to Riyadh by Cavusoglu after his visit to Doha and expressions of hopes for a change of attitude on the part of Saudi Arabia. He said “Our opposition to the injustice done to our Qatari friends is one thing, and our relationship with our other friends in the region is another thing. We enjoy multidimensional and very strong relations with all the countries in the Gulf region, in particular with Saudi Arabia. We are determined to strengthen our ties with these countries in every field as we have previously agreed. Citizens of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations who have investments in our country needn’t worry…Saudi Arabia, as the elder of the Gulf, is capable of resolving this matter. We hope this issue will have been resolved by the end of Ramadan.” Erdogan still harbored hopes of a softening in Riyadh’s position, which would permit a solution of the dispute. His statement was in line with his appeal to Salman on June 9 to “bring everyone together. This is what is becoming of Saudi Arabia as the Servant of the Two Holy Mosques. This is what we expect from you” and his call to him on June 13 as the “the elder statesman of the Gulf…to solve this issue.” Erdogan followed up on June 22 with a call to both Salman and Muhammed Bin Salman after the announcement of the latter’s elevation to crown prince.
The hardening of Riyadh’s position in the dispute, exemplified by the transmission of the harsh demands to Qatar at the end of the day Erdogan called the Saudi leaders, prompted him to line up even more firmly behind Tamim. After the Ramadan Feast prayers on June 25, Erdogan denounced “circles who aim to incite an atmosphere of division and disintegration in the Islamic world” and continued “We consider this matter of 13-point list to be contrary to the international law…Taking such an approach on this issue is very wrong in my consideration. It is especially a very ugly approach to interfere in the joint step Turkey took in 2014 with Qatar in the field of defense industry…I never approved of this stance on Qatar. What is more, we made an offer to Saudi Arabia to take a step towards establishing a base in Saudi Arabia, too. I made this offer to the King himself. They said they would consider the issue, but they haven’t responded yet. They have not come back to us since that day. The fact that they still have not come back to us on this but asked Turkey to pull back its troops is disrespectful against Turkey. Should we get permission when we make a defense cooperation agreement with any country? No offense, but Turkey is not an ordinary country. Any such approach as to ask Turkey to pull back its troops from there is disrespectful against Turkey…We have provided and will continue to provide every support in our power to Qatar.”
It is still possible that the crisis will come to an early resolution through negotiations and the acceptance by Qatar of what it may calculate to be a bearable portion of the June 22 demands, brokered by the Kuwaiti emir in time-honored Arab tribal tradition or through Tillerson’s efforts. However, it seems more likely that it will continue to escalate with unpredictable consequences for the countries directly involved as well as other interested parties beyond the Gulf. If Tamim decides to maintain his resistance, he will inevitably look to Turkey and Iran, not only for constant food supplies but also air access to the outside world, diplomatic solidarity, and in extremis, military protection. This will inevitably escalate tensions between Qatar and those seeking to force it to change its ways, while consolidating the emerging Saudi-led, U.S.- supported front against Iran. It would also undermine Ankara’s ability to retain links with Riyadh and, if the U.S. president sustains his backing for the anti-Qatar front, further weaken Erdogan’s effort to open a new page in the Trump era in U.S.-Turkish relations.
However, even if he is fully cognizant of the risks in continuing to back Qatar, Erdogan may feel that he has no alternative. To begin with, he appears to view the campaign targeting Qatar as part of a wider effort that may eventually expand to Turkey. At the same time, Erdogan has developed a closeness to the young Qatari leader confirmed by the fact that he has met him at least 15 times in both Turkey and Qatar since Tamim took over in 2013. According to Erdogan, Tamim called him a number of times during the night of the July 15 coup attempt and reportedly sent 150 special forces soldiers as additional protection. Erdogan alleged on June 9 that Qatar’s support on July 15 was in sharp contrast to others in the Gulf who “were happy with the coup attempt,” which they had “financed.” Cavusoglu went further by implicitly identifying the UAE in an article in Yeni Safak newspaper on June 12 that quoted him as saying, “We know that a country provided $3 billion in financial support for the coup attempt in Turkey and exerted efforts to topple the government.”
Turkey’s access to Qatar’s financial prowess, through various channels, has become more important in recent years as the influx of funds from the West has failed to keep pace with the requirements of an ambitious growth agenda. Parallel to the financial links, the two countries have also increased coordination in defense and foreign policy areas, most notably during the Arab Spring, when they both supported the MB in Egypt and then condemned the coup that toppled it, while cooperating in the sponsorship of many of the armed opposition groups in Syria. At a broader ideological level, they are linked by their ties to Qaradawi. While enjoying the protection of the Thanis in Qatar, the 91-year-old Muslim cleric has been exuberant in his admiration of Erdogan and in 2014, for example, proclaimed that “Istanbul would be the new capital of the Caliphate” and that “Erdogan is the man destined to accomplish this feat.”
With Trump facing calls by the anti-Qatar front—as well as some of his close advisers and many of his voters—to designate the MB as a terrorist organization, attention in Washington will increasingly focus on these connections. It is interesting to note that in his testimony in Congress on June 14 Tillerson said that “elements of the Muslim Brotherhood” were part of the Turkish government, a claim promptly rejected by Ankara. However, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim chose to defend the MB on June 20 by saying “No one knows what the accusations against Qatar are. Helping Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas. Since when are they armed terrorist organizations?” Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser and spokesman Ibrahim Kalin put the Turkish defense of the MB in a broader context in an op-ed on June 21 in which he wrote “This recent crisis is more than about terrorism charges. It is also about how to deal with political Islamic movements, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood rejected terrorism a long time ago and distances itself today from any group that resorts to violence.”
Bulent Aliriza is director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mehmet Uyanik is a research intern with the CSIS Turkey Project.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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