Recently, Turkey’s forward–basing posture has started to draw more attention due to the parliament’s fast-track legislation to ratify a bilateral defense treaty with Doha which allowed stationing Turkish troops on the Qatari soil. Notably, the timeline for deploying troops to Qatar overlapped with the forward–basing in Somalia, as well as the administration’s plans to launch a light aircraft carrier. This part of the analysis aims to provide a contextual framework for understanding Ankara’s military basing strategy beyond its borders.
TO FULLY grasp Qatar’s military geostrategic importance, one should develop a good understanding of the US defense posture. The US Armed Forces is designed to address the needs of a superpower that pursues global influence. Thus, under the Unified Command Plan, six of total nine US combatant commands are built on a geographic basis. One of the geographic combatant commands is the Central Command, widely known by its acronym, CENTCOM. CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) ranges from the Middle East to Central Asia. The Command pioneered Operation Inherent Resolve to fight ISIL terrorism in Iraq and Syria. While CENTCOM has its headquarters in Florida, it operates through forward deployed component commands. Two of CENTCOM’s five component commands, the one for the air force and the one for special operations forces, are based in Qatar. From a strategic standpoint, these are the most critical assets in the fight against ISIL. In other words, Qatar comes into the picture as a key operational hub.
Washington and Doha signed a defense cooperation agreement (DCA) back in 1992. Since then, bilateral defense ties have continued within a formal framework. The DCA was renewed in 2013. The agreement itself is a classified text, yet one can easily understand that it incorporates vital issues given the very fact that some 10,000 US troops are deployed to Qatar. The US forward military presence in this small Gulf nation is centered on a strong air force posture in the alUdaid base which plays an essential role in Operation Inherent Resolve. Furthermore, al-Udaid enjoys an excellent infrastructure that enables operating B-52 Stratofortress long-range strategic bombers. Finally, the US Army elements under CENTCOM have a brigade-level deployment in As-Sayliyah Army Base. All in all, Qatar hosts vital US assets for running the Pentagon’s military strategy in the Middle East. Doha has only modest defense capabilities. According to open-source estimates, the Qatari Armed Forces’ entire active manpower is around 11,800 which is barely equivalent to a standard division. Since Qatar has a very small population, there are only two ways for enhancing national defense capacity: building military alliances and focusing on higher-end arms to equip the national forces. The aforementioned US forward deployments remain an essential pillar of Doha’s military alliance policy. Now, the Turkish forward deployment is expected to diversify Qatar’s capacity as a host-nation.
Assessing the Burgeoning Turkish Deployments
On June 7, 2017, in a prioritized, fast-track legislation session, the Turkish Parliament ratified a bilateral defense bill previously signed with Qatar. This was the most significant and tangible move made by Ankara amidst the Gulf crisis. Following the parliamentary vote, Ankara sent a high–level military mission to start preparations for the deployments. The two most critical factors in Turkey’s forward basing to the Gulf are the roadmap and the timing of the deployments. Simply put, the base is expected to reach the battalion level within 2017, and the end-state would probably be stationing a brigade–level joint force. In fact, proceedings of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee suggest that the initial plan is to first establish a 500–600 strong contingent in Qatar (named as joint tactical division headquarters), which would be headed by a two-star Qatari general and a Turkish brigadier general as the deputy commander. It was also reported that some 90 Turkish troops, the equivalent of a company, has been stationed in the Gulf nation’s territory since 2015. At the time of writing, some press sources indicated that the initial
batch of the planned deployments could be as high as 1,000 troops, suggesting a possible adjustment in the force generation due to the pressing situation of Qatar. Furthermore, the Turkish media reported that training activities already began on June 19, 2017. Lastly, the proceedings showed that Ankara is soon to finalize establishing a separate joint mission between the Turkish Gendarmerie and the Qatari internal security forces.
Without a doubt, the most important article in the defense cooperation deal is the one that allows Turkish troops’ stationing on the Qatari soil. However, contrary to speculations, the ratified treaty does not include a casus foederis, a diplomatic clause determining under which circumstances the military alliance will be initiated, such as NATO’s Article 5. Thus, Turkey is not legally committed to the national defense of Qatar. As a comparison, Turkish–Azerbaijani defense partnership, for example, does have open-ended clauses that can well be interpreted as casus foederis
at times of war. Turkey’s forward basing in Qatar is also surely more than ‘symbolic’. Even the Turkish exclave in Syria, which is centered on the historical tomb of Suleiman Shah and has been guarded by a ceremonial watch squad for decades, led to complex issues including a Turkish evacuation and re-location incursion. In the case of Qatar, with thousands of men in uniform operating a joint forward base, the military investment is substantial and reflects Ankara’s geopolitical prioritization and fundamental interests in the Gulf.
The Underlying Geopolitical Perspective of the Basing in Qatar
The forward military deployments is an integral part of Turkey’s strategic posture in the 21st century. With these more widespread positioning of its assets ranging from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa, Turkey has been building its sphere of political-military influence. In this context, the Turkish forward presence in Qatar is a regional breakthrough. When first designed, it was about graduating Ankara to a whole new level of national capacity. Evidently, back in 2015, when the administration agreed with Doha for establishing a large base, some experts assessed
that with this move Turkey was pursuing to augment its soft power-driven influence in the Gulf with hard power elements. Furthermore, according
to this view, permanent basing would mean anchoring the Turkish–Qatari strategic partnership in an unpredictable and rapidly changing regional security environment. Some Turkish outlets even portrayed the basing in the Gulf as returning to the Ottoman imperial territories that were lost following the First World War.
If everything goes as planned, by the 2020s, a brigade–level joint force, which means a few thousand troops from all branches of the Turkish military, will be stationed in Qatar. Indeed, that could be a regional game-changer. Although one brigade is a small contingent for Turkey given its armed forces’ extensive human resources, possible deployment of some 3,000 or even more Turkish troops would be tantamount to nearly one–third of the active Qatari military personnel, and alone exceeds this small Gulf nation’s Navy’s or the Air Force’s manpower. Thus, within the limits of bilateral agreements between Ankara and Doha, the base could play a major role in Qatar’s defense planning, as well as the Emir’s regional affairs agenda. Moreover, defense partnerships are not only about military hardware transfers and troop numbers, but they also have the potential to build political–psychological and strategic cultural bindings. The content of the Turkish – Qatari defense partnership covers comprehensive training projects. These efforts could translate into the rise of a new military generation among the Qatari Armed Forces’ ranks that will have a strong familiarity with the Turkish strategic culture. In this respect, there is a good possibility that by the 2030s, a substantial number of Qatari generals and officers could be fluent Turkish speakers and operators of Turkey -manufactured platforms. Thirdly, the profile of the base itself is critically essential. Once completed, it will include elements from all branches of the Turkish military, as well as Turkey’s elite Special Forces, the Maroon Berets. In other words, the Turkish base in Qatar will provide Ankara with several political-military options ranging from forward-homeporting for its navy, to deploying tanker or AWACS aircraft, or managing special operations in the region.
The fast-track parliamentary ratification has certainly transformed Turkey’s role in the Gulf crisis from a potential mediator into a stakeholder. It showed that Ankara saw its burgeoning strategic ties with Doha as an indispensable part of Turkey’s geopolitical agenda. Turkey’s decision to ratify the treaty and then rapidly deploying troops to Qatar was not an anti-Saudi move, rather a pro-Qatari one. This is a complex but an
important nuance to understand Ankara’s perspective. In this respect, the Turkish Foreign Office’s official statement on the Gulf crisis conveyed Turkey’s “sincere wishes to the Gulf Cooperation Council members to solve their differences of opinion and approach through dialogue”. However, a key question arises at this point: can Turkey pursue a pro-Qatari but not anti-Saudi stance should the situation further escalates? After all, it was seen that removal of the Turkish base was among the Gulf Arab nations’ demands from Qatar, which shows the uneasiness among the GCC circles about Turkey’s military presence in the region. So far, Ankara’s harsh rhetoric focused on the UAE rather than Saudi Arabia. In fact, while President Erdogan called for the Saudi mediation to the crisis as the biggest Gulf nation, the Turkish administration and press sources even implied the UAE’s alleged support to the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 by funneling $3 billion. Thus, just like the basing in Somalia, forward–deployments in Qatar are likely to bring more competition and strain to the Turkish–UAE relations. Nevertheless, as long as Ankara can compartmentalize its relations with the GCC, first and foremost with Saudi Arabia, a political dispute with the UAE would be manageable.
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