Broadly speaking, Qatar sought to take advantage of new opportunities, partnerships and deals in anticipation of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups emerging successfully from the Arab uprisings. For this reason, Qatar provided financial assistance to Brotherhood-linked armed groups during the uprisings and openly sponsored Islamist and revolutionary political parties associated with such groups. Furthermore, Qatari individuals and government representatives are reported to have been in regular contact with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen in order to exert geopolitical influence, play an intermediary role between terrorist organisations and the West, maintain Qatar’s immunity to terrorist attacks, and/or show Doha’s sympathy. Finally, global economic rivalry with its fellow Gulf states also triggered confrontation between Qatar and its neighbours, for example in Somalia.
In turn, Turkey aimed to change the course of some Arab uprisings – mostly in Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – by providing military, political and economic support for Islamist and revolutionary groups – armed as well as political. After 2016, this policy evolved into a more security-focused approach, which deploys the Turkish military to compensate for the weaknesses and limitations of Ankara-friendly local actors. Turkey effectively mobilised a mix of proxies and direct military intervention in Syria and Libya to achieve its foreign policy objectives via military superiority. Ankara also engaged in covert cooperation with the pragmatic elements of Hay‘at Tahrir Al-Sham – Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. In Somalia, Turkey’s initial developmentally- and economically-oriented role acquired a more geopolitical and security-focused character after the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis. Converging political interests in these countries led the formation of a de facto Turkey-Qatar front in Syria, Libya and Somalia.
In Syria, Turkey carried out four military incursions, of which two-and-a-half have sought to undo the gains of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (PYD) – Operations Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Peace Spring. These four operations have carved out sizeable areas in northern Syria where Turkey has effective control and armed Syrian opposition forces function as Turkish proxies. Qatar, on the other hand, was a staunch backer of the Syrian opposition under Emir Hamad al-Thani. When Emir Tamim al-Thani came to power, however, Qatari involvement in Syria was reduced. Nevertheless, Doha maintained political support for the Syrian opposition and continues to prevent the Syrian regime from rejoining the Arab League. In contrast, the policies of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have become more pro-regime since 2018, with the UAE normalising relations by reopening its embassy in Damascus (late 2018) and encouraging the Emirati private sector to invest in Syria. In turn, Saudi Arabia has explored supporting the PYD in northeast Syria.
At the outset of the Libyan civil war, Qatar provided financial, military and diplomatic support to revolutionary Islamist groups via the networks of a prominent Libyan imam, Al-Salibi. This involved backing Abdulkerim Belhaj, a former leader of an Al-Qaeda affiliated group and the new leader of the Islamist al-Watan party. Turkey joined NATO’s operation in support of the Libyan opposition (as did the UAE and Qatar) and provided political support for the National Transitional Council. During the second Libyan civil war, Turkey and Qatar sided with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been engaged in a civil war with Marshal Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) since 2014. In this regard, Turkey and Qatar initially sponsored different GNA revolutionary and Islamist factions with varying intensity.
In contrast, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt backed the LNA as part of their broader efforts to prevent pluralistic forms of governance from emerging throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and to maintain authoritarian rule. But after the UAE and Russia empowered the LNA to launch a major offensive against the GNA in April 2019, Turkey started to provide more active military assistance, based on a November 2019 Memorandum of Understanding on security and intelligence cooperation. In exchange for a delimitation agreement on maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean, Turkey deployed conventional combat enablers and irregular fighting elements to Tripoli in support of the GNA. After intense fighting, a permanent ceasefire was brokered and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum was launched in October 2020. Both Turkey and Qatar have been trying the reap the benefits of this emergent post-conflict environment by institutionalising their cooperation with the GNA. Both recently signed a security agreement with Tripoli to enhance the military capabilities of the GNA.
Somalia has become another area of economic and political rivalry between Turkey/Qatar and Saudi Arabia/UAE. Being rentier states with excess revenues, the Gulf countries view the ports of Somalia as suitable investment opportunities to create political influence, patronage and trade benefits. Between 2011 and 2017, Qatar and Turkey concentrated on providing political and investment support to the Federal Government of Somalia, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia focused on the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and semiautonomous Puntland. After the Qatar diplomatic crisis, the Turkish role in Somalia acquired a geopolitical and security character by deploying a training mission of 200 personnel in support of the Somali National Army against extremist groups such as al-Shabaab (an al-Qaeda affiliate) and Islamic State in Somalia.
Qatar, on the other hand, has pursued a multi-pronged policy. Formally, it provides development support to Somalia. Informally, it also supports local extremists affiliated with Al-Shabaab to target UAE and Saudi investments, with Qatari individuals such as businessman Khalifa Kayed al-Muhanadi serving as middlemen. This is evidenced, for example, by the 2019 bombing of Bosaso, a port managed by the UAE in Puntland, which was claimed by a group affiliated with IS in Somalia. Reportedly, since about early 2018, Turkey has also joined Qatar’s efforts to create new proxy groups that prioritise undoing the gains of the UAE in Somalia. In response, the UAE has recently built a military base in Berbera to help protect Somaliland against terrorist attacks. As both sides start using covert operations to secure their gains and undo the other side’s, economic rivalry is transforming into a low-intensity proxy war.
Turkish and Qatari approach to conflict and crises across the region
In Syria, Turkey and Qatar initially called on Assad to enact structural political reform, including integration of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood into a unity government. When this failed, from 2011 until mid-2013, Turkey and Qatar backed the nationalist Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamist revolutionary groups of the Syrian National Council (SNC). Once these groups became marginalised, Turkey and Qatar extended their support to more extreme groups. For example, in 2017 former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani admitted the likelihood of Qatari support to Jabhat Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate. When Emir Tamim al-Thani came to power, Qatari involvement in Syria was reduced. Qatar withdrew its military liaison officers from Syria in 2014 and instead provided aid to local councils of the Syrian Opposition. However, Qatari dealings with Islamist groups did not fully stop. This is evidenced by the mediator role that Qatar played between the US and Jabhat Al-Nusra during the release of hostages in mid-2014. But while Qatar scaled down its military involvement in Syria, Turkey stepped up its military activities after 2015 by incorporating armed opposition groups as proxies and deploying its own military force to establish safe zones in northern Syria.
In Libya, Qatar pursued an assertive foreign policy in the early days of the civil war. Doha backed revolutionary movements, rallied the Arab League's support for a no-fly zone over Libya, and took part in the NATO-led mission with Turkey. When the second round of civil war broke out in 2014, Turkey increased its support for the Islamist and pro-Turkish Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, while Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt stood behind Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled anti-Islamist Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya. Under Emir Tamim al-Thani’s leadership, Qatar kept funding mainstream Islamist groups in Libya as demonstrated by the capture of Tripoli in the summer of 2014 during which the Qatar-backed Dawn coalition played a decisive role. After the 2017 GCC embargo, Qatar decreased, but did not cease, its financial backing for GNA-linked factions. Turkey, on the other hand, deepened its military support for Tripoli after GNA territorial losses in April 2019. For instance, Ankara provided modern combat enablers and deployed fighters from the Syrian National Army in support of GNA operations. Since then, Turkish military intervention has secured and consolidated the GNA’s position at the expense of the UAE- and Egypt-backed LNA. GNA military achievements under Turkish auspices further encouraged Qatar to maintain its support for Tripoli.
Somalia is another state where Turkey and Qatar have worked together. While Turkey’s initial interventions in Mogadishu in 2011 were largely economic and humanitarian, they acquired a more geopolitical character after the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis. Since then, Turkey has deepened its engagement in the fields of security and trade in Somalia by building close links with the Office of the President. In 2012, Qatar backed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and since 2017 has extended loans to his successor, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo. However, after the 2017 crisis, the UAE and Saudi Arabia also stepped up their support for Somalia’s breakaway areas, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland and semiautonomous Puntland, undoing much Turkish/Qatari influence. In response, Ankara and Doha adopted a proxy warfare strategy by making use of Muslim Brotherhood networks. These networks go back to 2013 when a Qatari individual, Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nu'aymi, was accused by the US Treasury of providing money and material support, as well as conveying communications to al-Qa'eda and its affiliates in Somalia for more than a decade. Reportedly, since early 2018, Turkish, Qatari and Iranian intelligence officers have joined efforts to create new proxy groups – in part via Muslim Brotherhood networks. In this manner, Turkey and Qatar have sought to destabilise the local governments of Somalia that are backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It also appears that Qatar was behind the 2019 Bosaso bombing in a port managed by the UAE and Dubai Ports, although President Farmaajo denied this allegation. Since then, Qatar has been working with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate Al-Islah party to create a military wing that recruits former members of Al-Shabaab.
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On balance, the 2017 blockade of Qatar did not substantially alter Qatar’s approach towards conflict and crises across the region, let alone bringing it in line with the Quartet’s foreign policy preferences. Instead, the blockade pushed Qatar to accept Turkish security patronage in exchange for Doha’s support on selected regional issues.