In recent years, Turkey and Qatar have found much common ground on a host of foreign policy issues. Both Ankara and Doha have sponsored a variety of Sunni Islamist groups, seen as conduits for their geopolitical influence in the fluid Middle East. However, both countries have experienced setbacks from their engagement in some of the region’s conflicts, most notably in Syria.
Last month, the Turkish and Qatari representatives left the Vienna talks on Syria maintaining their conviction that Bashar Al-Assad must relinquish power as a precondition for peace. Although Turkey’s shared border with Syria and Qatar’s deep pockets provide the two nations much potential to prolong insurgencies against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies, it appears unrealistic to imagine Ankara and Doha achieving their objective of toppling the Syrian regime through their current strategies, especially in light of Russia’s military intervention in the country.
Turkey and Qatar’s Quest for Regional Influence
Throughout the 2000s, both Turkey and Qatar pursued efforts to expand strategic clout at a time when Washington’s relative power was declining in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Since taking power in 2002, the AK Party’s leader ramped up Turkey’s role and image on the Arab street through the ideological lure of the party’s brand of “democratic Islamism,” as well as through trade and investment opportunities that the Turks offered the Arabs.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-Israel rhetoric in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead (2008–2009) and the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010 improved the Turkish leader’s popularity in the region in the years leading up to the Arab Awakening. Similarly, Qatar relied on its ownership of Al Jazeera and its reputation as a “fair broker” in regional conflicts to enhance the nation’s own soft-power influence far beyond the Gulf. Indeed, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the US-led war against Iraq in 2003, its focus on the Palestinians’ plight and its role as a platform for Arab regime critics to voice their opinions sat well with many Arabs, whose previous media selections were heavily censored and slanted in favour of the ruling regimes.
However, the Syrian crisis and 2011’s other Arab uprisings and “revolutions” elicited reactions from Turkey and Qatar that severely damaged their reputations. By sponsoring Sunni Islamist causes in Egypt, Gaza, Libya, Syria and Tunisia, Ankara and Doha came under harsh condemnation from other powers in the region. Many quickly accused Turkey and Qatar of stoking sectarian unrest and promoting extremism.
In Egypt, both states opposed the rise of Abdulfattah Al-Sisi in July 2013. In Libya, Ankara and Doha both supported the Islamist-dominated “Libya Dawn Coalition”. Both Turkey and Qatar prevented Hamas from becoming internationally isolated through their shared support for the Palestinian group, which the US State Department and EU designate a “terrorist organization”. Qatar’s willingness to break political ranks with its fellow Arab states was underscored in August, when Doha strongly distanced itself from an Arab League resolution condemning Turkey’s bombing of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq. Qatar expressed its “full solidarity” with Turkey as it seeks “to protect its borders and preservation of its security and stability”.
Yet it is in Syria where both countries have invested the most in their common cause. Despite their efforts to topple Assad, the regime’s resilience has highlighted the limitations of Turkey and Qatar’s means to project power beyond their borders. In 2011, the Turks and Qataris bet on Assad following the fate of Mubarak, Ben Ali and Qaddafi, and sought to be on the “right side of history”. Their miscalculations about the regime’s future were rooted in a misread of domestic issues within Syria and the dynamics of the regional forces that would ultimately come to have a profound impact on the course of events.
Ankara and Doha also underestimated the extent to which Assad’s foreign backers would come to his side. Indeed, Ankara and Doha’s roles in the conflict have been dwarfed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah’s military intervention against the regime’s enemies. Despite the efforts of Ankara and Doha to topple Assad, the SAA remains by the far most powerful force on the ground and the regime is not about to disappear.
Unquestionably, the regime’s resilience is partially due to its brutality, but it is imperative to note that Assad has a wide network of support in Syria from groups who share common fears of the takfiris’ agenda. Given that the two most powerful factions fighting the Syrian regime are ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra—both takfiri groups—many Syrians see the secular Ba’athist regime as the only realistic bulwark against Islamist extremism in Syria. Many analysts have largely attributed the strength of hard-line jihadist forces not only in Syria, but also in Libya, to Ankara and Doha’s sponsorship of Islamist networks across the region, associating Turkey and Qatar’s influence with sectarianism and extremism.