Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not compromise on the conditions he set out to President Barack Obama, for entering as a direct party to the war on ISIS. He is not convinced about the US mercurial policy behind this war, especially after the Obama administration dodged the request to establish a no-fly zone in Syria for the warplanes of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan wants to get Obama to show where he really stands on Assad. He is convinced that enlisting in an open-ended war for years under the title of the fight against ISIS’s blitzing terrorism would place Turkey in the vanguard, for which it would pay the highest price among the coalition members. Erdogan wants a clear blueprint for the goals of this war and an execution strategy. He knows his country is the main gateway for NATO into Syria, and understands full well the meaning and value of this. He recalls how President Obama dithered and backtracked on his pledge that Assad’s days were numbered, and will no longer accept mere promises but wants concrete guarantees, including removing the regime in Damascus. He wants other guarantees as well, such as preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state stretching from Iraq and Syria, to Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish minorities in all these countries have suffered for too long, and the events in Iraq and Syria have revived among their leaders the idea of realizing the dream of an independent state. Erdogan also wants, perhaps more than anything else, a regional role beyond the Turkish border in the east, a role that would turn Turkey into a major regional power with blessing from the United States and Europe. He has great ambitions. His bargaining chips are valuable. His tactics are controversial. His strategy is complex, and part of it is based on sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood, the cornerstone of his regional comeback, and another part is based on appeasing Iran, despite the disagreement with it over Syria, all while Erdogan has on his mind Egypt and the Gulf countries.
The Turkish president believes that as long as he maintains a special relationship with Qatar, which he believes shares his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gulf countries would remain permanently split. This relieves Erdogan, because Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to head off the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the Arab region.
Qatar denies funding and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, as does Turkey. Recently, Qatar took measures indicating that it would scale back its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The problem remains in Egypt, where Qatar continues to support a channel directed against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, following a popular call for him to do so. This is an ongoing point of contention with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite the improvement in the trilateral relations recently.
This week, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to discuss developments in the region and their alliance against ISIS, their agreement on the need to remove the regime in Syria, their concern over Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and their differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the convergence between Turkish and Qatar over the policy on Egypt.
At a session organized by a think-tank in New York earlier this month, the Emir Tamim bin Hamad tackled several accusations that have been made against Qatar. The session was closed and off the record, but Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah later gave his permission to publish everything the emir had said at his request.
Emir Tamim said that the policy of providing shelter for the Muslim Brotherhood, adopted by Qatar in the past, was now “over.” However, the emir said that Qatar’s policy based on “open doors” and “mediating” between players in the region, regardless of who they are, had no bounds, because Qatar wants mediation to be the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
He said relations between Qatar and Iran were good but that there were matters Qatar objects to in Iranian policy, including “interfering in Arab countries,” “occupying Arab territories,” and “the negative role it [Iran] plays in Syria.” Commenting on Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who is said to be a moderate that champions a new policy in Iran, Emir Tamim said, “Truthfully, we see no change. But we know that he desires change.”
The Qatari Emir acknowledged the differences with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – i.e. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – over foreign policy, but was keen to describe the relationship with Saudi Arabia as "historic and strong." He said that Doha expects the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to return soon, stressing his desire to have “accord and a great relationship with the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia.” Regarding Bahrain, he said, “We stand with the government of Bahrain and we urge it to open dialogue with the opposition.”
Concerning Qatar’s role in the coalition, Emir Tamim said, “Let’s say there is a role, but it is not a large one.” He added that the coalition was possible without Qatar, and said, “Our participation in it was definitely a difficult choice,” because there was no answer to the “fundamental question of: what next? On the following day.”
He acknowledged that Qatar had a profound role in Syria, and accused the regime in Damascus of “taking advantage of the terrorists,” saying that Bashar al-Assad would not step down unless he is forced to and the means to depose him become available. He continued, “The day after is not coming immediately,” but if the means were made available to the moderate opposition, it would be able to “defeat extremist groups” provided there is clarity over Assad’s fate. “The victims of this regime will not fight to help the tyrannical regime,” the emir added.
What is common to Qatari, Turkish, Saudi, and Emirati attitudes is that they all consider removing Bashar al-Assad, and possibly also his regime, a cornerstone of their policies on Syria. Where they