Turkey’s reaction to the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh has once again demonstrated Ankara’s desire to play an active role in southeast Europe, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. The Turkish leadership’s off-balance position toward settling the Karabakh conflict indicates that President Erdoğan intends to play the Karabakh card, both in context of the animosities between Turkey and Russia, as well as with the goal of putting pressure on Europe and the United States.
The best interests of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan are not Ankara’s highest priority. Turkey’s involvement in the Karabakh conflict resulted directly from the fact that the Syrian crisis was not going Ankara’s way. The budding political dialog established as part of the Geneva peace talks on Syria, the urging by the UN Security Council to involve the Syrian Kurds in the negotiations, and also Russia’s intention to retain some key elements of its military presence in Syria, have all pushed Erdoğan into a corner. Russia is holding on to two bases – a naval station in Tartus and an air station at the Hmeymim airfield – and President Vladimir Putin has ordered that they «will operate as previously», thus controlling Syrian airspace through the use of anti-aircraft weapons.
This effectively negates all of Turkey’s attempts to control Syria’s northern regions and establish a no-fly zone there.
Having failed in Syria, Ankara has decided to gamble on strengthening its military and political presence around the perimeter of the Middle East. Along with attempts to play the Karabakh card, the construction of an expansive Turkish military base (housing air and naval forces) in Qatar has been accelerated. Turkey’s leaders see this base as a foothold for possible future military operations in the Red Sea, the Caucasus, and Central and South Asia. Moreover, as stressed by Javad Heyran-Niya, a fellow at Iran’s Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, Ankara is calculating on securing for Turkey a role as one of the states that directly manage the security mechanisms in the Gulf region.
Thus Turkey would rank alongside the United States, with its bases in Bahrain and Qatar, the United Kingdom (with a base in Bahrain), and France (a base in the UAE).
However, the opening of a Turkish base in Qatar will have a far more manifold significance.
According to reports from the SIPRI Institute in Stockholm, Qatar has been pursuing an ambitious program of military purchases since 2010, particularly from Germany and Spain. The accelerated rearmament of the Qatari army is designed to create powerful and mobile armed forces that are capable of standing up more vigorously to Saudi Arabia, a country with which Qatar has historically had a difficult relationship.
Two rival centers of power have now emerged within the Cooperation Council of Arab Gulf States: on one hand is Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, and on the other – Qatar. For now Oman and Kuwait are playing wait-and-see.
It is no coincidence that out of all NATO members, Turkey sees Qatar as its most suitable military partner. The fact is that Turkey has traditionally signed specific military and political agreements with individual countries and even with territories located at the epicenter of «frozen» regional conflicts. For example, Turkey has signed agreements to provide Azerbaijan and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus with joint defense. In other words, Turkey’s leaders are positioning their nation as an independent player, able to defend its geopolitical interests unaided, outside of the existing international legal and bloc-related apparatus.
Commenting on these alignments, Iranian political scientist Javad Heyran-Niya stated that «currently the system for providing security to the Persian Gulf does not offer robust protection for all the countries in the region, and Iran and Iraq play no role in it». Nor can the Turkish-Qatari military alliance be considered a contribution to regional security – if only because deliberation and judgment seem to play an ever-diminishing part in Turkey’s foreign policy.
Europe and the United States are trying to soft-pedal the issue, bearing in mind both NATO solidarity as well as the fact that Ankara is controlling the refugee floodgates. But even there the special relationship between Ankara and Doha has not escaped the media’s notice. For example, the Czech newspaper Echo24 has pointed out that, despite the existence of a coalition between Arab monarchies and Turkey, «these players are not always on the same side». The Czech periodical also stresses, «Despite the fact that this ‘Sunni coalition’ unifies forces that are averse to the rise of Shiite Iran, it struggles with its own internal conflicts. Typically, on one side are Turkey and Qatar, which actively support the Muslim Brotherhood, and on the other are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which oppose this organization». Here is a quotation from the influential Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail: «It is time to stop treating Turkey as an ally, but as a country that has stepped beyond the pale».
True to form, the emerging Turkish-Qatari military alliance is already undermining Ankara’s position with other monarchies in the Persian Gulf, which all keep a jealous eye on each other’s policies.
«The cause-and-effect relationship between the most recent international events leads to the conclusion that there are those who are keenly interested in reigniting the conflict in the South Caucasus. The latest flare-up of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has occurred at the exact moment when American and Russian positions are drawing much closer together on many issues, and at a time when US-Turkish relations are cooling off due to disagreements over the problem of Syria», writes the influential Omani newspaper Alwatan.