Though Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have cut ties with Qatar, touching off a diplomatic crisis in the Middle East, one friend has refused to abandon the small country on the Persian Gulf. Turkey’s steadfast support of Qatar has stood out since the dispute began June 5. Not only has Ankara provided diplomatic and trade assistance to Doha, but it also has moved to expedite the deployment of Turkish forces to Qatar, a decision that will fortify the common ground forming between the two countries.
Building Stronger Security Ties
Though Turkey’s parliament agreed to the deployment last week, the decision to base Turkish forces in Qatar dates back to a 2014 agreement between the two states. Turkey has already sent a limited number of troops to Qatar; according to several reports, between 100 and 150 troops have been stationed at a Qatari military base since October 2016. But these forces are only the vanguard of what is intended to become a more meaningful and permanent deployment. The Turkish military dispatched a three-person delegation on June 12 to coordinate the arrival of additional forces. The latest available information, however, indicates there are practical issues relating to the facility intended to host the Turkish troops that need to be resolved before they can arrive.
Before the Turkish parliament and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially ratified the decision to send troops to Qatar, both countries had already agreed on the command structure of the Turkish base there. From that agreement, it would appear that Turkey is not simply looking for a base to run its own operations from, but is rather seeking a joint structure that will intertwine its activities with those of the Qatari military. While the Turkish forces will have their own facility, it will be under the command of a joint headquarters based in Doha, with a Qatari general at the helm supported by a Turkish general as his second in command.
Initially, Turkey planned to send about 600 troops to Qatar. While this number likely remains true for the next phase of Turkey’s deployment, the vote in parliament and several statements by Turkish officials have generated talk of a much larger deployment that may follow, eventually totaling about 3,000 troops. Turkey is also considering sending fighter aircraft and warships to Qatar. Such a deployment would give Turkey a significant presence in Qatar, though it may not necessarily sound like one compared with the 11,000 U.S. forces currently stationed there.
Turkish forces would primarily be in Qatar to assist and train Qatari forces, though they would also use the base to launch their own military operations. In theory, the Turkish military could also defend the Qatari government against internal or external threats. A deployment of 3,000 Turkish troops, along with fighter aircraft and warships, could prove a considerable boost to Qatar’s active military, which numbers about 11,800.
Depending on how the political crisis between Qatar and other Gulf states develops, Turkey could choose to deploy more troops than the 600 it plans to initially send as a sign of support for Qatar, or even to guarantee the security of the Qatari government if new risks emerge. While Turkey’s deployment remains a work in progress and will build incrementally, it cannot be ruled out that the deployment may eventually reach a level that elevates it beyond its current position as a symbol of military cooperation and political unity.
Shared Goals in the Middle East
Strategically, the Turkish and Qatari governments have seen some of their interests align in recent years. Both have identified opportunities to extend their influence within the Middle East by supporting Islamist groups. This aid increased substantially after the Arab Spring, when long-suppressed political Islamists found footholds in crumbling political systems. Doha and Ankara justify their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other such groups by claiming they are supporting democratic values and self-determination in the region. While Turkey and Qatar have some ideological alignment with Sunni Islamist groups, their backing is more about cultivating influence with popular movements that have millions of followers and adherents across the region.
Doha’s efforts over the years to build stronger security and trade ties with Turkey were similarly designed as a means to broaden Qatar’s influence beyond what its small size should allow, and to provide it with an extra layer of support for its security outside the Saudi and U.S. umbrellas. Doha has watched Riyadh’s efforts to circumvent its independence over the years, and resentment over being treated like a vassal state of the Saudi kingdom has helped prompt the Qatari government to diversify its alliances, even by developing ties with a Saudi rival like Turkey.
Critically, Qatar’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector –one of the largest in the world– allows Doha to maintain an independent economy. Because of its wealth, Qatar is not forced to fall in line with Saudi Arabia’s policies to keep economic aid flowing, as is Bahrain. The health and independence of Qatar’s LNG sector depends on the nation maintaining a balanced relationship with Iran, too, which bothers Saudi Arabia. And it is a relationship Qatar will not be willing to give up.
Turkey’s presence in Qatar gives Ankara another means of challenging Saudi efforts to dominate the Middle East and lead the Sunni world. Saudi Arabia has a positive relationship with Turkey, but Riyadh sees Turkey’s military presence in Qatar as an irritant and a challenge to its authority.
Meanwhile, despite its rift with Saudi Arabia and its growing security relationship with Turkey, Qatar’s military cooperation with the United States remains robust. In no way does Turkey’s military presence in Qatar give Doha the option to switch from its U.S. security guarantor to a Turkish backer. After all, the U.S.-Qatar military partnership goes back many years, and it doesn’t rub Riyadh the wrong way. So even as it receives more support from Turkish forces, Doha is highly unlikely to discard the security and diplomatic strength that the U.S. presence in the country provides.