Examining the Qatar Crisis from a Different Dimension:

Turkey and The US Strategy towards the Middle East



Abstract: After examining the US’ entrenchment policy, the struggle between the revisionist and status-quo powers in the Middle East (ME), the article tries to find an answer whether Qatar crisis is related to the US’ revised entrenchment policy. The article puts the US and Turkey into the center of discussion. 

Key Words: the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Russia, DAESH, Refugee, Entrenchment

Entrenchment Policy under the Obama Administration in the ME

Under Obama administration, the United States’ (US) policy towards the ME could be decribed by “entrenchment” and “free riding” concepts. Entrenchment refers to the policy that the US had to abstain from the direct involvement in conflicts in the ME with the goal of escaping costs that could originate from such conflicts and accumulation of power, during a time where the US power substantially decreased.   This US policy could display similarities with the tradional isolationist US policy in terms of the results for the US power in the international system (Yalçın and Duran, 2016). Before the First World War and after the end of the war, the US returned back to the international scene more powerfuly compelling the US, after the Second World War, to design a new world order where its ideals could survive and where its interests could be protected.

Nevertheless, entrenchement differs from the policy of isolation policy from some respects. The concept “free riding” plays a complementary role in that sense. Free-riding refers to the US desire to obtain the rewards and the benefits in the ME while escaping from the costs of the conflicsts by abstaining from the direct intervention in conflicts (Yalçın and Duran, 2016). For the free-riding to be successful, the US tried to remote-control the developments in power balances, alliances, and transformation of conflicts in the ME. For example, developments such as, the refugee influx, terrorism, the active support of and İran and Russia to the Asad regime, forced Turkey to intervine in Syria more powerfully, bringing Russia and Turkey to the verge of war. The most powerful member and the founder of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the US, raised its voice only when it thought the developments would engulf the whole region into the crisis, which inturn would harm the American interests at home and outside. The way the US reacted to such developmentes with global importance was to call on actors, such as Russia and Turkey, to a summit in Europe to negotiate their conflicting points. Neverheless, such US practices have proved to be futil often as it did not pass beyond international show offs.       

 Classical Realism as Self-Fulfiling Profesy in the US Foreign Policy in the ME

The US strategy towards the ME perfectly fits into the classic realist notion of relative power whose one of the basic premises suggest that an increase in another state’s power in international system authomatically reduces the power of other actors, and vice versa. This is regardless of whether a state is a power maximizer (Morgenthau, 1954) or security maximizer (Waltz, 1979). By putting the burden of the conflicts in the ME on the shoulders of the friends and enemies, the US has tried to escape from costs associated with the conflict. Nevertheless, the actors involved in the conflict has been negativelly impacted as they had to pay billions of dollars to reduce the harmful outcomes towards their own national interests, be it territorial integrity or military bases in the region. The countries that shares borders with the conflict areas in the ME have been at great risk facing the danger of terrorist attacks, refugee influx and loss of territory. For example, Turkey spent around USD 20 billion only on Syrian refugees on its soil. The costs of Turkey’s military operations against the PKK/PYD (the so-called terrorist groups) in North Syria and the technical and other types of support provided to the FSA is not even included.  

 However, the alliances has been changing in the ME. The American entrenchment policy during the Obama Administration put Turkey’s territorial integrity under a great risk. From the Turkish policy makers’ perspective, the US has never provided Turkey with meaningful support from the beggining of the conflict in Syria since 2011. The lack of adequate support from the US and the other NATO allies was experienced especially during the jet crisis between Turkey-Russia in Turkish decission makers’ mind. This compelled the Turkish law makers and the AK Parti administration to question the reliability of the US as an ally and the benefit of NATO for the Turkish national interests. The rumors about the support of the US to the military coup attemt of July 15, 2016 through the use of Incirlik Military Base worsened the Turkish perception of the US. Therefore, Turkey has been trying to setle its problems, at some point, by distancing itself from its traditional Western allies.

The inviting attitude of Russia in settling the conflicts in Syria, which helps Turkey’s sense of doing something tangable to reduce the harmful impacts of the crisis towards its national security, and the corresponding desire of Turkey on the same matter paved the way for grater cooperation for Turkey and Russia in Syria. The Astana Summit was a result of this endeavor. The effectiveness of the 2017 Astana Summits could surelly be questioned, yet it signaled the inception of a new page for the Russian-Turkish relations.

On the other hand, the Turkish-American relations could best be described by “insecure allies.” The concept of insecure-allies is meant to describe the lack of trust between Turkey and the US both of which are still allies in NATO, yet hesitant to cooperate in the most important global developments that has the capacity of reshaping the whole power balances in the international system. The diverging interests of the West and Turkey as a result of the geopolitic developments in the ME are behind this insecurity. For example, while Turkey describes the PYD (the armed Kurdish group in North Syria) as a terrorist organization due to its ties with the PKK (the so called terrorist organization acting on the basis of Kurdish ethnic  lines), the US finds it useful to defend its national interests in Syria.  The unclearity in the US policy towards the ME in terms of deciding on whether to keep alliance with Turkey or to cooperate with the Syrian Kurds despite Turkey’s strong objections for such cooperation, created a substantial amount of doubts in the Turkish policy circles. Although the Russians were not allies, they have been quite clear about what their interests are and how they would like to acheive their goals in Syria. In the Turkish mind, the Russian clearity in their foreign policy in the ME turns them into more talkable actors comparing with Americans.     

Revisionist vs. Status-Quo States in the ME

Regional Sunni powers in the ME could be examined in “revisionist” and “status-quo” categories according to their approaches to the process called the Arab Spring and its pioneer actors. From the begining, Qatar and Turkey has been supportive of the rightful demands of people for change. Both countries, using hard and soft power instruments, have become the centers where the change has been supported in the region. The protection Turkey provided to the Syrian refugees, its fight againts the terrorist organizations, and the Qatar origin Al-Jazeera media organization need special emphasis in this regard.

On the other hand, one of the greatest financial pioneers of the region that has also been supporting the Salafi and the Wahhabi movements throughout the world, the Saudi Kingdom, has highly been threatened by the people’s democratic demands in the ME. Although the movements of the so-called Arab Spring are regional in charrachter, the voices of people for democratic change have been heard by democratic circles and wellcomed by Muslim diaspora in the West. In this respect, the movement has become global in its implications. The Saudi family could have lost the control in the country if it had not taken the necesseary measures. Therefore, Saudis have instrumentalized a number of foreign policy tools, such as finance, diplomacy, military, and politics to eliminate the risk that the Arab Spring created for Saudi Arabia.

While Saudis tried to repel the danger imposed by the people demanding democratic change in the Arab ME, they also fought against the empowerment of Iran in the region. Saudis’ intervention both in Yemen and Bahrain to support the Sunni government against the uprising Shia minorities are great examples of Saudis’ approach to the sect issue in the ME. Interestingly enough, while Saudi Arabia is being threatened by demand for change in the region, it stil supports the highly religious oppositional Sunni groups in Syria to reduce the Iranian influence there. Therefore, although Turkey supports the democratic changes in the ME, to balance Iran and to escape from the risk that could be imposed by the refugee influx if let in Saudi Arabia, Saudis approach Turkey with financial and strategic support. Yet, the groups that Turkey and Saudis supporting in Syria are different: while Turkey supports Free Syrian Army, Saudis support ultra-religious groups, such as Al-Nusra.

Qatar could be categorized as a more interesting case when taking into consideration its stance towards the Arab Spring and its relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. Qatar, by using its large Al-Jazeera media network and financial power, provided the oppositions in Arab Spring countries with a great support.  What makes Qatar so interesting is that Qatar itself is not governed by democracy in the first hand. Also, Qatar is a member of union created by the Gulf states all of whose members consist of non-democracies. Different than Saudis, despite being the member of the same union, Qatar followed a policy more alligned with Turkey, in Syria.  Therefore, Qatar’s relations with the other Gulf state has been an ambiguous issue from the beggining of the Arab Spring.

As witnessed recently, Qatar has largely been excluded from regional affairs (trade, security and politics) in the Arab countries. The most relevent countries in this context that have offered help to Qatar has been non-arab countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and İran. Algeria has been one of the few Arab countries that showed solidarity with Qatar. Qatar’s approach to Iran is softer than  the Saudi approach.

Is Turkey a Friend or an Enemy: Revised Entrenchment

While the US tried to control its enemies over its allies in the ME for a long time under the Obama administration, the balances in the ME has changed so much that following such policy became highly difficult. The Trump administration seems more willing to take a more active role in the ME. Furthermore, in addition to the American entrenchment policy towards the ME, the changing geopolitics in the region (the creation of a Kurdish and an DAESH zone, etc.) compelled Turkey to take harsher measures to protect its national security. While doing so, the diverging interests between Turkey and the traditional Western allies made Turkey to take unilateral decissions at times and cooperate with Russia at other times. Therefore, the American definition of friends and enemies got more complicated: It was repeatedly being questioned by the American political elite whether Turkey was an ally. However, it is important not to forget that the same questioning was taking place in the Turkish side as well. Particularly taking into consideration the Turkish society’s beleive about the US being behind the 15th July Coup attempt in Turkey, such questioning in the Turkish side..  

The Qatar’s crisis emerged after the US visit to Saudi Arabia, where Trump met Saudi King Salman and Egypt’s President Sisi that came to power through a military coup detat in 2013 against the Morsi. This created a strong opinion that the US supported an ambargo against Qatar in the region. Nevertheless, considring the type of alliance between Turkey and Qatar, the Turkish political elite read the development as an act by the US to corner Turkey due to Turkey’s independent foreign policy.  

Regardless, Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia has been strained after the Gulf crisis with Qatar. Turkey’s support to Qatar was not being welcomed by the Gulf states seen the issue as a family matter and undesiring the intervention of the third parties, such as Turkey. Turrkey’s sending troops to its military base in Qatar further angered Saudi Arabia, demanding the with drawal of the Turkish military forces from Qatar that Turkey suggested they were there for training the Qatari forces.

Whether, what is happening on the ground between the Sunni regional actors is an extension of the American’s revised (on the basis of changing friend-enemy definition as Turkey’s cooperation with Russians could have angered the Americans) entrenchment policy or not, the Turkish-Saudi relations have been strained. The two countries will have to work on their relations more carefully from the time being. Despite the problems, however, Turkey’s powerful role in conflicts in the ME and its balancing role against Iran turn Turkey into a substantial ally whose support could not easily be rejected for Saudis. Saudi Arabia’s financial support is important for Turkey’s role in Syria as well, yet Qatar could easily fill the Saudi gap for Turkey.         


Morgenthau, Hans, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 2nd ed., New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954.

Waltz, Kenneth, 1979. Theory of International Politics, Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Yalçın, H. Basri and Duran, Burhanettin, Küresel ve Bölgesel Güçlerin Suriye Politikası, SETA Yayınları, (2016).



Assist. Prof. Dr. Bilal Çıplak ( Bu e-Posta adresi istenmeyen posta engelleyicileri tarafından korunuyor. Görüntülemek için JavaScript etkinleştirilmelidir. )