When Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring last month, there was nearly a consensus within the Arab League that it should oppose Ankara’s latest military campaign in Syria. However, Libya, Qatar, and Somalia—three members of the League which have deep military ties with Ankara—refused to jump on the bandwagon.
Similar to how Doha had backed Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, Qatar was particularly supportive of Operation Peace Spring in October. Doha defended Ankara’s decision to launch the campaign, and high-ranking Qatari officials backed the official Turkish narrative about the incursion being necessary to protect Turkey from terrorism. A number of media platforms in Qatar (including Al-Arab, Al-Sharq, etc.) published articles that were extremely supportive of the Turkish offensive against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). One Al Arabiya report, in fact, alleged that Qatar had financed Operation Peace Spring. Ankara has denied this claim.
The Daily Sabah Editorial
In light of Qatar’s support for the Turkish operation, an article published by Daily Sabah on November 4 caught many regional observers by surprise. This editorial—titled “Al Jazeera English: A threat against the Turkey-Qatar alliance”—harshly condemned Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera English for its coverage of Turkey’s latest military campaign in Syria.
“Qatar’s flagship news channel has been spreading anti-Turkey propaganda,” wrote the paper’s editors. Given how close Daily Sabah is to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the editorial was unquestionably a stern message from the Turkish leadership to Doha.
“Under the pretext of independent and objective journalism, the network has succumbed to bias and fake news to misportray known terrorists and fugitives from law as oppressed activists. Jumping on the Western media’s Turkey-bashing bandwagon, the network smeared last month’s Turkish operation into northeastern Syria with Operation Peace Spring with the PKK terrorist organization’s talking points,” read the editorial.
It went to pains to emphasize that the “anti-Turkey propaganda” was coming from “a small group of people within Al Jazeera English” who are “undermining the Turkey-Qatar partnership in an attempt to dictate the Gulf nation’s foreign policy,” rather than the network at large.
The Daily Sabah editorial also stressed that Al Jazeera English, not Al Jazeera Arabic, was the problem. Yet with language that was similar to the rhetoric from the Anti-Qatar Quartet—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—in 2017 about Doha needing to shut down Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based/financed media outlets in order to end the siege, the Daily Sabah article said that the future of the Turkish-Qatari alliance would depend on Al Jazeera agreeing to “weed out all individuals seeking to poison that alliance behind the smokescreen of independent journalism.”
The editorial concluded that without the network doing so, “the Turkish government must consider Al Jazeera English a hostile outlet. If Qatar wants to burn bridges with a key ally so that a handful of second-tier activists and washed-up Westerners can feel important, then Turkey has no reason to have Doha’s back.” The piece went so far as to suggest that Ankara could “join forces” with the states which are blockading Qatar.
In the past, Ankara has found Al Jazeera to be highly problematic, particularly considering the network’s reporting on human rights issues in Turkey.
Last year, when I spoke at a think tank conference in Ankara, a scholar pointed out that, although Turkey had sided with Qatar against its immediate neighbors at an early and pivotal stage in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis, Turkey’s leadership had been able to relate to some of the blockading states’ grievances. Indeed, in the past, Ankara has found Al Jazeera to be highly problematic, particularly considering the network’s reporting on human rights issues in Turkey. PKK/YPG figures’ past appearances on Al Jazeera programs such as Inside Story have enraged Turkish officials.
Nonetheless, as Turkey’s alliance with Qatar has flourished throughout the post-Arab Spring period, officials in Ankara have never made a major fuss out of Al Jazeera in any public forum until this month. As Middle East Eye reported, previously the Turkish government addressed any irritation with Al Jazeera when speaking to Qatari officials behind closed doors, avoiding such a source of tension from becoming a public issue. Purportedly, Turkish officials recently raised this issue with their Qatari counterparts but were unsatisfied with their response that Al Jazeera’s editorial lines are entirely independent of the government in Doha. The inability of the two governments to agree to disagree on Al Jazeera’s reporting of Turkey’s Syria campaign led to the Daily Sabah editorial informing the world of the present tension in Ankara-Doha relations.
Understanding Turkish Sensitivities
Undoubtedly, Turks are extremely sensitive about PKK/YPG-related issues. Polls indicate that Turkish citizens across the political spectrum are supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to launch Operation Peace Spring. That most of the international community came out quickly to condemn the Turkish incursion in northeast Syria last month has done basically nothing to decrease domestic support for the operation. Instead, the global criticism of the campaign, which has resulted in “the Kurds” (however defined) gaining much greater sympathy around the world, has served to reinforce a popular conviction in Turkey that the country is being targeted by many powers in the Middle East and beyond which want to see Turkey remain weak and subservient to larger countries such as the United States.
The Turkish perspective is that critical media coverage of Operation Peace Spring amounts to “anti-Turkey propaganda.” Against the backdrop of Ankara’s relations with a handful of Arab states, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, moving in a negative direction, it was hardly any surprise when these countries’ media platforms reported on Turkey’s military campaign negatively. In fact, last year, scores of UAE-based outlets such as The National and Gulf News published articles that focused heavily on alleged human rights abuses of Turkey and Ankara-backed Islamist forces in Afrin amid Operation Olive Branch.
Ankara had hoped that Qatar’s state-owned outlets such as Al Jazeera English would refrain from publishing articles that articulated views criticizing the Turkish incursion and interviewing people who spoke in support of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
During Operation Peace Spring, these same countries’ media platforms have also condemned Turkey’s military campaign in northeast Syria. Yet Ankara had hoped that Qatar’s state-owned outlets such as Al Jazeera English would refrain from publishing articles that articulated views criticizing the Turkish incursion and interviewing people who spoke in support of the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
As Birol Baskan, a Turkish scholar who used to work in Doha, put it: “Given the strong bond Turkey has developed with Qatar, Ankara expected Doha to mobilize its media power to provide support, especially Al Jazeera English, which could convey Turkey’s legitimate concerns to the English-speaking international community. But that did not happen.”
To some observers, this spat between Turkey and Qatar appears bizarre given the extent to which these two countries have strongly supported each other and aligned closely on sensitive regional issues throughout the post-2011 period. Some experts have even accused Al Jazeera of reporting on Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring uncritically in order to avoid any tension in Doha’s relationship with Ankara, which made the Daily Sabah editorial even more surprising to some analysts. Nonetheless, it is clear that, from Ankara’s perspective, Qatar’s leadership has not done enough to restrict Al Jazeera’s reporting on events in northeast Syria in order to defend Turkey’s image in the English-speaking world.
This friction is somewhat reminiscent of how Al Jazeera’s coverage of the U.S./U.K.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq led to certain problems in Doha’s relationship with Washington during the George W. Bush presidency. In fact, one British daily reported that Bush wanted to bomb the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha but was talked out of it by the then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
According to one credible source in Washington with whom I spoke, the support that neo-conservative voices inside the Beltway expressed for the blockade of Doha in 2017 was about settling scores from 2003 when Al Jazeera had challenged the Bush administration’s narratives about the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yet Washington and Doha’s alliance weathered the Iraq war notwithstanding the Al Jazeera factor.
Does Al Jazeera Threaten Turkish-Qatari Relations?
For Qatar, the hope is that its alliance with Ankara will withstand friction stemming from Al Jazeera’s coverage of Operation Peace Spring. It appears a safe bet that despite the extent to which Turkey’s leadership is highly sensitive about how media outlets cover PKK/YPG-related issues, Ankara will view its relationship with Qatar pragmatically and not emotionally. In fact, one day after the Daily Sabah’s editorial went out, Ankara and Doha upgraded their bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Yet it is not easy to understand the significance of this upgrade in the grander picture. As Samuel Ramani recently noted, “Operation Peace Spring revealed Qatar’s willingness to back Turkey, but also the limits of that cooperation.”
Turkish officials are aware that they have much to walk away from in terms of their special relationship with Doha.
Turkish officials are aware that they have much to walk away from in terms of their special relationship with Doha. For Ankara, the wealthy Gulf country is a valuable strategic ally that has stood up for Turkey on many occasions in which Ankara was relatively isolated both regionally and globally.
Andreas Krieg opined that the alliance is not suffering from any real tensions and that there is merely an “illusion in some circles in Ankara that foreign relations could be used as leverage to change coverage of operation” waged by Turkey. As he put it, “bilateral relations are mutually beneficial and go beyond personal relationships.”
Regardless of how Ankara and Doha address this tension in bilateral affairs, this episode illustrates how Turkey wants Qatar to understand that global media coverage of Operation Peace Spring is a highly sensitive issue for Ankara. Clearly, certain voices in Ankara believe that media outlets owned by Turkey-allied governments in the Arab world should toe the line when it comes to reporting on Turkey’s anti-YPG operations. Yet at the same time it appears misguided to conclude that this issue in Qatar-Turkish relations could become more than an irritant in an otherwise strong partnership.
Ultimately, the fact that the Daily Sabah editorial surprised so many observers underscores how close these two countries’ leaderships have grown since the Arab Spring uprisings.