The recent actions by Saudi Arabia and several of its Arab allies (or clients) to isolate and punish Qatar for its alleged collusion with Iranian and other purveyors of terrorist activity create a challenge and an opportunity for Turkey, but one that will be difficult to negotiate if Turkey does not recognize the precariousness of its regional international situation. At first glance, Turkey appears forced to choose between Riyadh or Doha, but prudence advises Turkey to play the role of mediator to secure the full cooperation of Qatar in counter-terror activities, assist in post-ISIS Syrian stabilization, and avoid Saudi Arabia becoming the sole director of majority Sunni states’ policy towards majority Shia Iran.
Though tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and other GCC states) have been increasing for some time, the decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya*, the UAE, Bahrain, and Yemen* to cut diplomatic, transportation, and trade links with Qatar came as a surprise. The reasons offered for this dramatic action include alleged Qatari support for Iranian activities in Syria, the Qatari government’s failure to stem the flow of Qatari citizens’ financial support to terrorist, and, as reported by the Financial Times, providing Iran and Syria-based terrorists with almost one billion dollars in ransom payments to secure the release of a Qatari Royal hunting party. At a strategic level, the Saudis are clearly fed up with not having the full cooperation of Qatar in its open war via proxies with the regime in Tehran. Having used the assembly in Riyadh of about 50 leaders of mainly Muslim nations during President Trump’s visit to point a finger at Qatar as a financial supporter of terrorism, the Saudis have now carried forward their plan to force the Qataris to become a compliant and supportive partner in their conflict with Iran under the cover of countering terrorism. (Those who wondered why the Saudis were being so accommodating of Trump and his agenda now have their answer.)
What should Ankara do? Should it join in the isolation of Qatar or should it stand up against Saudi efforts and aid Qatar? With the closing of the land border with Saudi Arabia and the closing of airspace to the overflight of Qatari planes, Doha-Istanbul could become a useful means of limiting the impact of the Saudi isolation attempts. Should Ankara risk offending Riyadh by increasing flights by Turkish air carriers into Doha? Or, should it also close its airspace to Qatar Airlines, further restricting access to and egress from Doha? Can it play the role of mediator, or would this be better done by an Arab nation? What is in the best interest of Turkey?
First, Turkey must reaffirm its commitment to fight international terrorism, especially by cutting off funding sources to terrorists. It must be unequivocal in its resolve to fight terrorism regardless of the affiliation of the terrorists.
Second, Turkey should make clear its independence of action in regards to diplomatic relations, that is, while it will fully respect the right of Saudi Arabia and others to break relations with Qatar, it will decide its course of action based on its assessment of what is best for Turkey, including in its fight alongside international partners against terrorism.
Third, Turkey should offer its good offices to mediate between Qatar and the others, taking advantage of its distance and physical separation form the two principal disputants, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to present itself as a disinterested party, and one committed to fighting terrorism that can facilitate an amicable resolution of the dispute to the benefit of all.
Fourth, Turkish officials should avoid taking a side in the dispute and respond with studied ambiguity to questions from the media – its diplomats are adept at this vital skill – to maintain its role as an honest broker.
Finally, Turkey’s leadership should focus on resolving this dispute between Qatar and its neighbors without linking the resolution to any particular interests of Turkey, for example, do not insert the efforts to round up Gulenists abroad into efforts to resolve the dispute, for pursuing its interests during efforts to resolve the Qatar-KSA dispute would undermine Turkey’s status as a disinterested honest broker.
Former Obama advisor and now mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel reportedly opined that the opportunities that result from a crisis should not go to waste. The current crisis between Qatar and several of its regional neighbors presents Turkey with an opportunity to enhance its status in the region, burnish its image as a leader in the fight against international terrorism, and remind the world of its considerable heft in the region. To realize these gains, Turkish leadership should focus its professional diplomatic resources on resolving this regional dispute without choosing one side over the other.