Spotlight: Turkey's Erdogan to visit Gulf states amid Qatar crisis

Source: Xinhua| 2017-07-20 22:50:28|Editor: yan
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by Burak Akinci

ANKARA, July 20 (Xinhua) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to visit three Gulf countries in the hope of de-escalating the impasse between Qatar and four other Arab nations while his country is trying to safeguard its interest in this oil and gas rich strategic region.

Erdogan is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait on July 23 and 24, according to presidency sources.

The dominant Turkish President supported Qatar in its dispute with neighbors and criticized the demands issued by the four boycotting countries as a prerequisite for ending the sanctions on Doha. One of the demands was the closure of the Turkish military base in Qatar, which Erdogan said was "disrespectful against Turkey."

Doha rejected the demands, and insisted that hosting the foreign base, the only Turkish military presence in the region, was Qatar's sovereign right. Turkey's Defense Minister Fikri Isik said that sovereignty must be "protected."

The demand of closing the Turkish military base, which is one of the 13 demands issued by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain on June 22, is likely to be the focus of talks and a source of contention between Erdogan and Saudi officials in the meeting next week.

According to presidential sources, Erdogan is going to remind sides during his Gulf tour that "crisis benefits no one both in political and economic terms and that de-escalation is a must to prevent any hostile action."

"This visit is aimed for most at protecting Turkey's interest in this important region by telling those countries that despite that Ankara took sides with Qatar, it doesn't want hostile ties with others," Bora Bayraktar told Xinhua from the Istanbul based Kultur University.

This academic and expert on international affairs does not think that Erdogan will be able to makes things change in this bitter conflict and that it can broker a deal or end the crisis.

"What Turkey wants at this stage is to be more visible in this crisis. Erdogan will probably explain to parties involved that Turkey appreciates these countries' friendship," said Bayraktar.

And the security commitments sealed with Qatar seem to be a red line for Erdogan.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor its three partners in the boycott is likely to back down on the demand that Qatar expels Turkish forces, since they regard Ankara's closer ties with regional arch-enemy Iran as a potential threat to Gulf stability.

Although Turkey maintains that the military deployment stems from a 2014 agreement, the decision to send troops to Qatar was rushed through the Turkish parliament within days of the crisis beginning on June 5. The base currently holds 150 Turkish troops but has the capacity to hold 5,000 and continues to deploy dozens of commandos despite tensions in the region.

Batches of soldiers and heavy army equipment have been deployed to Qatar, according to Turkish reports, in the framework of bilateral agreements before a planned Turkish-Qatari army exercise.

"Turkey will not back down on its military agreement with Qatar," said Bayraktar, adding that Turkey considers its military presence in the region a major political thing.

Other experts say that Turkey is similar to Qatar in that it "desires to be a major player in the region," causing tensions in their support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Gulf countries view the Brotherhood as a major transnational threat to regional stability and have accused Qatar, and also Turkey, of supporting the terrorist organization.

The four Arab countries have demanded that Qatar cut ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and stop financing terrorist groups in the region. Turkey fears that if Qatar were to buckle under pressure from its Gulf neighbors, those countries would then turn their attention to Ankara's alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

These countries announced this week that they are no longer insisting with the 13 specific demands now that Doha accepts six broad principles that include commitments to combat terrorism.

Although Turkey maintains close diplomatic and economic ties with the Gulf countries, its loyalty is often perceived as fluid, switching back and forth, and dependent on what best serves its interests, experts said.

The Gulf region's relationship with Qatar has often reflected that uncertainty, allowing Turkey to forge loose relationships with Iran and opposition groups in the Gulf.

However, Ankara is wary of committing too much to one side or the other. Except for its dependence on the region for energy, Turkey also considers Gulf investment essential to Turkey's economic growth over the last decade.

The four countries boycotting Qatar are set to meet in Manama, Bahrain, to decide the next step in the worst diplomatic crisis since the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1982.

On Wednesday, President Erdogan had a telephone conversation with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and both leaders reportedly discussed on the actual conflict.

Ankara has been a crucial ally of Qatar since the beginning of the diplomatic crisis, shipping food to this country but diplomatic efforts and a difficult mediation launched by Turkey have so far failed.

A source close to the government said on the condition of anonymity that Erdogan's visit aims at "repairing any misunderstanding."

"It is not in Turkey's interest to alienate Saudi Arabia or Kuwait by extending support to Qatar. We think that some countries perceived the support given to Doha incorrectly," the source told Xinhua by phone.

Erdogan said previously that Turkey's backing of Qatar would not cease, and on the other hand, Turkey is also unwilling to harm ties with any other countries involved in this crisis.

Before the start of Erdogan's visit, his spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin told reporters on Thursday that Turkey "welcomes" the easing by the Saudi-led bloc of demands to end the Qatar crisis.

"We see that the constructive approach adopted by Turkey in this crisis is yielding results," said Kalin, hailing Turkey's diplomatic efforts.