• Eyal Pinko

Taliban's victory in Afghanistan brings Turkey to be at the diplomatic stage front

Taliban's victory generated massive insecurity waves in Central Asia. While the full extent of the consequences of the events in Afghanistan is unknown, the first significant tremors in neighboring regions are already visible.

The Taliban's advance in the Middle East has resulted in a reshaping of diplomatic positions and the formation of new alliances that were unthinkable a year ago. As a result, several countries, including Qatar and Turkey, are re-emerging on the diplomatic scene.

Within a week of the Taliban seizing Kabul, a convoy of buses escorted Qatar's ambassador to Afghanistan, Saeed bin Mubarak, to Hamid Karzai Airport. In addition, 250 students and teachers were evacuated from a flight attendant academy, and the flight crew was transferred to Qatari Airlines planes bound for Qatar's capital, Doha, via vehicles.

Qatar deported tens of thousands of Afghan asylum seekers the following week and resettled them on its territory. Embassy personnel, including the ambassador, escorted the convoys to the airport and later provided temporary housing in Qatar and US military camps. By August 31, the deadline for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, approximately 55,000 Afghans had been evacuated to Qatar, with the majority of them now awaiting flights to other countries.

Qatar's decades-long ties with the Taliban have endowed the small Arab country with a unique and vital status that has facilitated the rapid and relatively peaceful withdrawal of US forces, as well as the withdrawal of thousands of US civilians, aid workers, and Afghans working with the US. Now, life is in jeopardy. Qatar is the buffer zone that can ensure the safety of the tens of thousands who have been abandoned, horrified by Taliban persecution. Without the Arab side's mediation and involvement, the US withdrawal would almost certainly have been much more violent and bloody.

All of this has a long history. Qatar was chosen by the Taliban years ago to serve as a conduit between them and the United States. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have failed in their efforts to persuade the Taliban to establish diplomatic missions on their territory. One of the reasons is that the two countries have extremely close ties to Washington and are both fighting radical movements and the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, Qatar is viewed as a "neutral" actor that does not require the establishment of a Taliban mission in Doha.

Thus, the Qataris hosted the US-Taliban agreement signed last year. The agreement was to arrange for the withdrawal of the US and the resumption of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Doha arranged a meeting between CIA Director William Burns and the Taliban leadership in August, as it has become a pivotal country in US relations with the Taliban. Qatar is currently in negotiations with the Taliban over Afghanistan's future governance and the security of Kabul airport, which would enable the Taliban to begin rebuilding the country and establishing international ties. However, airport security will be their first and most significant test.

Prior to Kabul's fall, the former Afghan government agreed with the US administration that Turkish forces would protect Hamid Karzai Airport. Turkey readily agreed, as it was expected to bolster relations with Washington, which have deteriorated noticeably since the acquisition of Russian anti-aircraft systems.

Additionally, the agreement will give the Taliban access and influence, while strengthening Ankara's influence in Central Asia at the expense of Russia and China. The deal may have collapsed following the Afghan government's disintegration and the flight of its leadership to the UAE, but Turkey remains the only candidate for managing and securing Kabul International Airport, thanks to Qatar.

The plan has been halted indefinitely due to differences between the Taliban and Ankara. Turkey has demanded that Turkish forces secure the airport and its environs, while the Taliban have essentially opposed any foreign presence on Afghan soil. However, analysts predict that Qatar will eventually convince the Taliban to withdraw the request if it wishes to maintain international legitimacy and if it is serious about attracting foreign investors to assist in rebuilding the country.

Qatar's influence also plays a role in a possible agreement on Kabul airport. Since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1972, they have developed an ideological, military, economic, and diplomatic alliance. However, this alliance reached a zenith in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an economic embargo on Qatar and a diplomatic boycott. Turkey then established an air corridor, backed Qatar internationally, and stationed approximately 3,000 troops at bases on Qatari territory.

Additionally, the two countries support the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian movement Hamas, collaborate in Syria, and cooperate in Libya, where they backed the UN-recognized government in Tripoli against General Haftar, who was financed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France. Qatar and Turkey are both non-members of the Riyadh-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Hutus in Yemen.

Doha and Ankara can now reap additional benefits from their alliance in Afghanistan. Suppose Turkey had reason to fear US Vice President Joe Biden's policies and possible additional sanctions in response to its purchase of Russian missile systems. In that case, it is now a welcome ally. The US administration, which has not ruled out establishing ties with the Taliban, has no official contact with the fighters and will require all available mediation, even if it comes from Turkey.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in the formation of another unexpected alliance. For months, the UAE has maintained covert contacts with Turkey in an attempt to re-establish relations and develop an economic and strategic partnership. These contacts became public during a visit to Turkey by UAE National Security Adviser Tahnun bin Zayed in mid-August.

UAE Crown Prince bin Zayed met with Erdogan two weeks after the visit sparked a series of speculations. Abu Dhabi, one of the countries that imposed the blockade on Qatar, referred to Turkey as "the most dangerous element in the Middle East," causing tension between the countries, with Ankara even threatening to cut ties over UAE-Israeli normalization agreements. Following a U-turn, the Emirates are now seeking an alliance with Erdogan.

Until Bin Zayed provides a public explanation for his policy shift, it is believed that the UAE has reconsidered its relations with the US following Trump's signing of the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban and Biden's promise to implement it, as well as efforts to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal. The emirates have begun assembling a strategic network that is not entirely reliant on the US.

Turkey is one of the Middle East's most powerful countries and a NATO member. Despite the schism between it and the UAE, it remains a significant economic partner - bilateral trade will total approximately $ 8 billion in 2020 - and may provide the military and political opportunities sought by Bin Zayed. As a result, the Arab leader, who became an Israel ally a year ago, will also be a Turkey ally. This means that it will be able to obtain weapons, drones, and other military hardware regardless of whether Israel or the US imposes restrictions.

This is a significant achievement for Turkey, which has sought influence in the Persian Gulf for years. Thus, the events in Afghanistan spill over into Egypt. Egypt's delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hamdi Loza, has arrived in Turkey to begin a new round of talks to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. They are diametrically opposed.

Following Abdel Fattah El Sisi's ascension to power in a coup in 2013, Turkey continued to refer to the general as a despotic and dictator and his rule as a military coup. While El Sisi's iron-fisted rule over Egypt is valid, Ankara's messages are political in nature. For example, the Turks have granted asylum to the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership, with whom El Sisi is at odds. In addition, Turkey has permitted Arab television stations based on its territory to criticize El Sisi and has signed an agreement with Libya to redraw economic borders in a way that could jeopardize Egypt's ability to transport gas to Europe.

As a result of Trump's pressure on both sides, Cairo and Ankara initiated talks, which were followed by optimistic Turkish declarations of the resumption of diplomatic relations. Egypt has a number of conditions, including the extradition of political fugitives associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the halting of anti-Sisi television broadcasts. Nevertheless, like the UAE, Egypt appears to be on the verge of changing its position. What seemed implausible until this year will serve as another reminder that one should never say "never" in foreign affairs.

This highlights the significance of the newly inaugurated President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi's, statements. He stated that establishing relations with neighboring countries was his top diplomatic priority, emphasizing relations with Saudi Arabia in particular. While the two countries' foreign ministers did not stand side by side at a recent regional forum in Baghdad, there are signs of talks. Both countries are interested in collaborating in the aftermath of the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan.

Israel, too, is seeking its place amid all of these changes. The concept of an anti-Iranian coalition that provides Israel with a military and diplomatic safety net is eroding. Arab efforts to forge new regional alliances to combat long-standing threats such as the Taliban and radical Islamist groups align with Biden's stated goal of allowing other countries to deal with their own threats without involving the US.

Turkey's diplomatic spring, which entails reorienting the country toward Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, is encouraging Israel to consider joining the process to avoid being excluded. However, these new dilemmas result from the Taliban's butterfly effect, and it is clear that Israel's peace agreements with several Arab countries over the last year require diplomatic adjustments.

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