2018-01-31

Turkey finds in Qatar an Arab ally to resist challenges in Iraq and Syria


The post-Cold war environment in the Middle East was further marked with failure of nation states to modernize without falling back to authoritarian rule. The early 2000s witness increased interest of the Republican neo-con administration in Washington that had set to reform regional dynamics on its agenda for the Middle East. Globalization and promotion of democratic norms, often with disregard with local political and social characteristics, made US administration to look for allies in regional political forces that were enjoying legitimacy and trust of the American political elites.

With the Justice and Development party at the helm, Turkey since 2002 has been demonstrating an increasing interest in the Middle East affairs. Turkish moderate Islamist and allied political elites by then had already established good relations with American decision-makers, mainly through close cooperation in the Central Asia and the Balkans, where US administration needed partners who would be embraced by local actors as promoters of positive changes and legitimate trust-worthy.

The Arab Spring events offered a great opportunity for the Western interests to promote democratic agenda as part of positive changes. Within this framework, international community was paying much attention to applicability of the Turkish model of democratic government in a Muslim-majority society. Skepticism on success of such endeavour prevailed when both events in the Middle East led to deeper armed and political crisis in major countries of the region and destabilization of political situation in Turkey itself in 2013.

Turkey and Qatar have been most vocal supporters of changes in the region, claiming that public participation in political process must be further supported from the outside. Both states have been enjoying relations since 1972, since the early 2000s political leadership in both states has been expressing vocal support for deepening of mutual ties. Political solidarity on multiple regional issues was further reinforces by desire to include military cooperation. Since 2002 Turkey and Qatar have been involved in technical and arms deals with the biggest contract so far signed in 2017 on deliveries of Turkish armored vehicles for Qatari army.

Since 2014 we can witness increasing defence cooperation as well: both states signed agreement to expand their relations to mutual military assistance and establish first Turkish military facilities in Qatar. Military presence was reinforced by establishment of the High-level Strategic Cooperation Council in January 2015. In 2017 Turkish officials signaled that Turkey and Qatar, taking into account regional dynamics, agreed to expand Turkish military base and increase its capacity to host naval, air and ground forces with hosting of up to 5000 Turkish Army servicemen.

Our decision to take the case of Turkish military base as a case in our study of Turkish strategic culture is dictated by desire to show what factors contributed to this step. The international setting for the move could be a primary area of interest. Turkish-Qatari rapprochement has been proceeding on the background of rapidly declining US desire to commit more attention and resources to the Middle Eastern affairs. On other hand, American political establishment has been trying since 2008 to establish network of alliances among regional actors to counter-balance radicalism and Iranian influence in the region, especially in areas where US and Israeli interest are at stake. Primary spheres of US interest is stability in the Gulf, a main trade route for oil supplies to the global economy.

In this sense, Turkish ruling political elites would like to secure positive relations with the Western world by increasing its capacity as a regional actor. Turkey is interested in developing hard power capacity in critical areas of the Middle East. This would give Ankara not only tools to influence its relations with the West, by attaining greater utility, it also would improve diplomatic and soft-power arsenal of Turkey. This logic is evidence by coherence observed in decisions to establish physical presence in other critical spots like Somali or Iraq.

Speaking about relevance of the military-civilian relations in Turkey as a factor for decision to establish presence in the Middle East, we should notice that this policy has been maturing during the process of democratization in Turkey. On the one hand, Turkish military would like to have improve capacity for power projection in the region for the sake of improving capacity to better react and withstand challenges to Turkish national security in its proximity like Syria, Iraq or Iran. On the other hand, we should remember that these decisions were made by political elites, therefore, fundamental reasons for expansion of military bases in the Middle East must be looked for in the realms of domestic politics.

Deeper involvement of Turkey in the political process of the Middle East has become a cornerstone of the AKP foreign policy. The decision to establish military base in Qatar was criticized by Turkish political opposition as a move that would hurt Ankara's role as an unbiased and impartial mediator. For the ruling party, however, this initiative would symbolize increasing role of Turkey as an independent regional power who can challenge existing setting and promote national interests in accordance with its ideological view. It is, furthermore, important to underline here that Turkey has been investing in Qatar's security because two nations together can better handle challenges by aligning their potentials. Having an Arab ally behind its back, Turkey would have more opportunities to determine environment in its neighbouring Arab countries like Iraq and Syria.

The case of Turkish military case reveals that today military-civil arrangements have change and clear way for purely civilian political considerations over power use abroad. This case showed first example of power use beyond Turkey's geopolitical environment. We should, however, interpret this decision as an attempt to improve Turkey's non-military capacity for influence in its neighbourhood. Witnessing further US decline in the region, rise of instability on Turkish borders where traditional state fail to provide security and rising differences on security priorities between Turkey and its traditional Western allies prompt Ankara to find better opportunities and develop alternative ties via regional security arrangements that would make use of power on Turkish borders less essential.

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