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Yousef Alsharif

Turkey’s path back to the Gulf’s embrace

The policy of rapprochement and re-kindling relations with Ankara is a positive development, but I have my doubts

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on March 2, 2015 shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they listen to their national anthems during a welcoming ceremony upon the latter

Before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh, two events showed that Ankara wants to bring back the warmth to its relations with the Kingdom. First, Turkey made a surprise decision to join anti-ISIS coalition meetings, and then it rediscovered the importance of Yemen, closing its embassy in Sanaa after the Houthis took over in a swift alignment with the Saudi stance. However, Turkey’s flirtation has not touched upon the subject of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Kingdom considers a terrorist organization. This means Turkey still intends to involve itself in the affairs of Arab states, just as Tehran is doing through pro-Iranian Shiite groups—something which is unlikely to aid a rapprochement.

 

 

Desire for better relations or maneuvering?

 

Notably, the official Turkish line on how relations with Cairo needed mending was suddenly curtailed after the death of former Saudi King Abdulla bin Abdulaziz. At the same time, efforts were made to imply Turkey’s keenness to warm its relations with Riyadh. Interior Minister Efkan Ala was sent to attend a coordination meeting in Saudi Arabia that brought together foreign ministers from the states participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and during his visit Ala expressed Erdogan’s desire to visit Riyadh. Additionally, the Turkish Army was present at the last military meeting held by coalition states to coordinate efforts and evaluate operations against ISIS. This opened the door to speculation about the provision of Turkish logistical or military support in the operation to liberate Mosul. Ankara also swiftly closed its embassy in Sanaa after a similar decision by Saudi Arabia.

 

 

These messages from Ankara constituted a sufficient knock on the door; in Riyadh they were heard by King Salman and produced a positive response. Saudi-Turkish relations had been in the best of conditions before 2010, after years of work to forge Gulf-Turkish cooperation. King Abdullah had visited Turkey twice and urged the Gulf States towards a close and fruitful cooperation with Ankara. This was crowned by the signing of a strategic cooperation agreement under which annual or semi-annual meetings were held. In these meetings, foreign ministers of the Gulf’s seven Arab states coordinated political, diplomatic and security stances. The agreement even paved the way for arms industry cooperation and joint Turkish-Saudi military training exercises at Turkey’s Konya Air Base.

 

 

This means, then, that a basis for cooperation exists. The motives exist and joint interests would be served. Furthermore, Turkey, or rather the businessmen close to President Erdogan, have reaped large economic benefits from cooperation with Gulf States. However, it may be that talk of a re-convergence has been prompted by the expansion of Iranian influence in the area and the imminent signing of a nuclear deal with Washington that could give Tehran even more freedom to do as it pleases. If this is the case, two important points must be considered in order to gauge how useful working with Turkey to restore balance in the region may be.

 

 

Firstly, there are Turkey and Iran’s relations, which Ankara—often more so than Tehran—is keen to protect from any tension. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that Turkey’s decision maker—and we are referring in particular to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu here—sees Iran as a natural extension of Turkey in the east. In fact, he sees it as Turkey’s gateway to the Caucasus region. Davutoglu believes that Turkey and Iran complete each other to form a whole: Turkey is an extension of Iran in the west and Iran is an extension of Turkey in the east. In his book, Strategic Depth, he explains the influence Turkey has as a result of its position. Apart from this, Iran has been and continues to be an important source of support for the Turkish economy. Ankara has not hesitated to breach economic sanctions on Iran, cooperating with the country on a number of projects, especially in relation to the sale of oil. In the latest corruption scandal to hit the Justice and Development Party (which involved a business man of Iranian origin called Reza Zarrab) it was revealed that Turkey had aided the evasion of bank sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil.

 

 

However, for years Iran’s intelligence services have dug their claws in to Turkey, supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and bloodying the Turkish Army. Ankara, which is well aware of Iran’s ability to play under the table and strike below the belt, has no desire to compete with its neighbor in that field. Despite Iran’s use of the PKK to strike Turkish interests during the 1990s, Ankara has not dared to make use of Iran’s Azeri community, which forms a large portion of its population and shares ethnic links with Turkey. Ankara has even sought to make sure its differences with Tehran over the situation in Syria only amount to Syrian-Syrian losses. Turkey has effectively fought Iranian presence, Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through its influence on Syrian opposition groups, and formerly by allowing foreign fighters to enter the battlefield. However, it has avoided becoming directly involved as much as possible to avert a direct confrontation with Iran on Syrian territory. Also, we should not forget what Turkish diplomacy saw as a “slip of the tongue” by Erdogan in 2011, when he criticized the intervention of “Peninsula Shield” forces in Bahrain, saying he did not “want another Kerbala,” and the fact that Ankara has avoided approaching the issue of Bahrain in a way that could irritate Tehran.

 

 

This shows that Ankara is open to cooperation with the Gulf States on creating balance in the region but that it will never risk making an enemy of Iran or even appearing as if it is part of a “Sunni” alliance against the regional designs of the “Shiite crescent.” Over the past four years, Erdogan has championed a policy of “supporting, leading and defending the Sunni community in the region.” However, there should be absolutely no confusion between this policy, which aims to support the Muslim Brotherhood and justify Turkish involvement in Syria and Iraq, and Turkish “doctrine” on foreign policy. Turkey’s approach will always be to reject entry into the above type of alliances, no matter how great Erdogan’s influence on politics and his control over the state become, because the Turkish street rejects such moves, as does Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu, who, despite his currently limited ability to restrain President Erdogan, is strengthening his position in politics day after day. Also, although we have seen Erdogan make many fiery promises in the past three years, we have seen no practical effect on the ground.

 

Accordingly, the nature of relations between Ankara and Tehran mean that Turkish support for any relationship with Arab or Gulf States is always limited. There should be no exaggeration or big expectations exceeding the reality on the ground.

 

The second point that must be considered in relation to Gulf-Turkish cooperation on enforcing a strategic balance with Iran in the region –in addition to the nature of Tehran’s relationship with Ankara—is Turkey’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is what has led to the demise of the previously strong relationship between Turkey and most of the Gulf States—especially Saudi Arabia—over the last three years. If this support continues, it will undermine the Arab call for neighboring countries not to meddle in the affairs of Arab states, with the emphasis placed on Iran, in particular: how can the Arabs ask Iran to stay out of Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen while Turkey meddles in the affairs of Egypt and Libya? That goes without mentioning the fact that there are some who believe Turkey’s desire to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia could be a maneuver to win Saudi favor, which would mean gaining the upper hand over Egyptian President Adbul Fattah al-Sisi and putting pressure on him over the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

All of this should prompt us to ask what goal Ankara is really trying to achieve by moving closer to Saudi Arabia at this precise moment. Is it an attempt to relieve the pressure on its allies in the Brotherhood or a response to the economic hardship threatening to afflict Turkey? Could Ankara actually be in the process of correcting its policies and aiming to restore balance in the region with Iran and the Gulf States? The latter possibility doesn’t match up with the continuation of strong relations between Ankara and the Brotherhood, and its policy of destabilization in Libya and Egypt. Therefore, although the policy of rapprochement and re-kindling relations with Ankara is a positive development, I have my doubts; perhaps it is necessary, but there should be a clear basis for cooperation. There should be no exaggerated expectations, and policies that seem to contradict the situation on the ground should not be accepted.

 

Establishing new Gulf-Turkish ties to resolve the Syrian crisis militarily and temporarily shelving issues of contention could be risky; toppling Bashar Assad’s regime without reaching an agreement on the extent of Turkey’s role in Syria’s future could whet Erdogan’s appetite for further involvement, both in Syria and the Arab world.

 

This article was originally published by Al-Hayat and has been translated from the original Arabic by Ullin Hope.

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on March 2, 2015 shows Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) standing next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they listen to their national anthems during a welcoming ceremony upon the latter's arrival to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. (HO/SPA/AFP)

All of this should prompt us to ask what goal Ankara is really trying to achieve by moving closer to Saudi Arabia at this precise moment. Is it an attempt to relieve the pressure on its allies in the Brotherhood or a response to the economic hardship threatening to afflict Turkey?"