Giancarlo Elia Valori
“Turkey has deep ties of friendship and fraternity with Qatar and the relations between the two countries have rapidly improved in all fields… Both countries are actively cooperating in solving regional problems.”
With these words the official website of the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs briefly describes the status of relations between Qatar and Turkey. These relations have influenced and will continue to deeply influence the evolution (or involution) of international relations in a wide region that goes beyond the classic borders of the geopolitical Middle East and stretches from Libya to the Caucasus, passing through Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean basin.
“Friends of hard times”: this is how the Turkish President, Tayyp Recep Erdogan, and the Emir of Qatar, the unscrupulous 40-year-old Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani, define themselves.
In fact, they must be good friends, considering that in 2018 the Turkish President accepted, without blinking an eye, the “personal” gift of a private jet plane worth 400 million dollars generously provided by his young and very rich ally, with whom he has maintained very close relations over the last decade, with face to face meetings on a monthly if not weekly basis.
The liaison between Turkey and Qatar has two very precise dates of reference: December 2010 and June 2017.
After the initial and limited unrest that broke out in Tunisia on the wave of protests against the rising cost of living and for greater democracy, also thanks to the sophisticated and incessant information (and disinformation) strategy of the TV station Al Jazeera, owned by the Emir of Qatar, the protests spread rapidly to Libya, Egypt and Syria producing upheavals and disruptions that still persist today.
The myth of the “Arab Springs” started thanks to Al Jazeera, and to the political short-sightedness and analytical superficiality of the U.S Department of State, led at the time by the “vestal” of politically correct, Hillary Clinton.
It was Al Jazeera who inflamed the squares, streets and minds of the whole Arab and Muslim world, calling for rebellion against the “despots” and instilling in the West and in the Euro-American mainstream media the idea that behind the insurgency there was a genuine demand for democracy.
We realised (with difficulty) that things were not as the Qatari broadcaster reported, after a decade of bloody clashes, civil wars and authoritarian coups – all events that showed that the “Arab Springs” were nothing more than the attempt of the most backward part of Islam, gathered around the “Muslim Brotherhood”, to finally take power by overthrowing more or less authoritarian secular regimes, and to replace them with governments based exclusively on the Sharia, the Islamic law requiring the strictest compliance with the Qur’an precepts.
It was in that context that the special liaison between Erdogan and al-Thani developed and strengthened. Both of them realised that if they managed to take over the political leadership of the “Muslim Brotherhood” – which was disliked by the more moderate Arab governments in the Persian Gulf – they could become the new key players of Middle East geopolitics.
That prospect led Turkey and Qatar to support the short-lived rise of the “Muslim Brother”, Mohammed al-Morsi, to Egypt’s Presidency in 2012 and to intervene heavily in the Syrian crisis, with economic and military aid, as well as the support of propaganda (always with Al Jazeera at work) against the rebel forces opposing Assad’s regime that were rapidly hegemonized and dominated by the Syrian jihadist militiamen of Jabat Al Nusra and the Iraqi cutthroats of “Caliph” Al Baghdadi’s Isis.
Turkey and Qatar bet on Assad’s fall and the turning of Syria into an Islamic Republic that could support Turkey’s new hegemonic role in the region, financially backed by the very rich Qatar – a State that with its 300,000 inhabitants was unable to stand out faced with the hegemonic country of the Gulf, namely Saudi Arabia.
Things did not go as desired by the two “friends of hard times”. In Egypt the dreams of Morsi and the “Muslim Brotherhood” were shattered in 2013, faced with the reaction of the military led by General al-Sisi, while in Syria – thanks to Russia’s intervention – Assad still “reigned” even if only on the ruins of a country destroyed by a senseless and ferocious civil war that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths among civilians and the flight of over a million refugees.
The role played by Turkey and Qatar in the Middle East turmoil and the ambitions of the two allies to take the leadership and excel in the most sensitive region of the world, lead us to the second significant date in the relations between Erdogan and al-Thani, namely June 5, 2017. It was the day on which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt broke diplomatic relations with Qatar. A few days later they gave a very harsh ultimatum to Qatar imposing to minimize relations with the “Muslim Brotherhood” and close the military base of Tariq Bin Ziyad, occupied since 2014 by a contingent of Turkish armed forces. Otherwise very harsh sanctions would be imposed.
With a view to strengthening pressure, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates sent troops to the border with Qatar, stopped flights and land communications while, by decision of the Turkish Parliament, the Turkish contingent was further strengthened.
The sanctions against Qatar were very harsh and only a Turkish airlift could avert a severe food crisis for a rich but powerless people, faced with its neighbours’ siege.
The support provided by Erdogan to Qatar, during what was called the “Gulf crisis”, negatively and definitively marked relations between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, with strong repercussions on trade (a general boycott of Turkish goods was called for) and on the Turkish economy in general, which was negatively affected by the drop in exports throughout the region.
The unscrupulous activism of the Turkish leader, the profligate spending to back the airlift to Qatar and the military engagement in Syria put Ankara’s economy into crisis long before the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was felt in Turkey, with devastating effects on its people’s living standards.
Nevertheless, a boycott from the Gulf countries, threats of sanctions from Europe and substantial international isolation have not yet limited the adventurism of the Turkish President who, like an avid gambler, is raising the stakes on several tables in the hope of making up for his losses.
From Libya to Armenia, from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, the Turkish leader keeps on trying to play a leading role, with the support of his friends in Doha.
In Libya he sent his own Jabat Al Nusra Syrian soldiers and militiamen to fight alongside the forces loyal to President al-Sarraj, thus forcing his opponent, namely General Haftar, to stop last spring-summer’s offensive on Tripoli.
In Libya, Turkish interference caused the harsh reaction of the Egyptian President, al-Sisi, who warned Turks and loyalists not to cross the “red line” west of Sirte, threatening to send ground troops.
In the Mediterranean the crisis is open and far from a solution.
Turkey’s designs on the exclusive economic zones off the Turkish part of Cyprus and the Eastern Aegean islands for the exploration and exploitation of underwater gas are harshly and formally contested by Greece and France, while Al Sisi’s Egypt has even involved Israel in exploration projects off the Egyptian coast.
In the debate on the borders of gas exploration and extraction areas in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean basin, there is no clear position and commitment by Italy, despite the active presence of ENI in the area, left alone in the difficult Libyan and Mediterranean situation.
While the dossier on the independence of Syrian Kurds – strongly opposed by Turkey but supported by the United States – is still open, the only partial strategic success achieved by President Erdogan’s activism has been in Nagorno-Karabakh where, with Turkish military support, the Azerbaijani Muslims have defeated the Armenians on the ground, thus forcing them to surrender portions of territory inhabited by Christians.
However, the Turkish-Azerbaijani success has not been complete, as troops from the Russian Federation have been deployed on the ground, with the belligerents’ consent, to guarantee the truce. Hence a Pyrrhic victory, which still enables Vladimir Putin to control the disputed territory and keep on protecting the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh not only with diplomacy but also with his armed forces.
With Israel in the background, politically strengthened by the opening of diplomatic relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, forged under Saudi Arabia’s benevolent eye, the power relations from the Black Sea to Libya are taking shape and see the two “friends of hard times” becoming increasingly aggressive but probably even weaker.
Turkey imports 60% of the gas from Russia via Azerbaijan and, until it can exploit the deposits being explored on the Turkish shores of the Black Sea, it will not be able to push too hard with Russia, which has so far not responded to Turkish provocations harshly, but has certainly demonstrated with a Foreign Minister such as Sergey Lavrov that it does close its eyes or bow its head in front of a new Islamist crescent.
With America distracted by the paradoxical outcome of the Presidential elections and Europe prostrated by the health, economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that international political adventurers such as Erdogan and al-Thany – who have not hesitated to support the worst representatives of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus and even Europe – and the Qatar-Turkey axis have so far substantially held out despite the many debacles of their allies, due to the common front erected by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
What is surprising is that these countries have anyway been left alone, with the exception of Russia, France, Egypt and Israel, to face an Islamist axis that would expect to continue to act undisturbed to the Southern borders of Europe and Italy.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group