By Gönül Tol
March 17, 2015
Frustrated by the United States’ failure to heed its advice on Syria and Iraq, and by Iran’s growing clout in these countries, Turkey seems to have decided to mend its frosty relationship with Saudi Arabia. When King Abdullah died earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately cut short an African tour and flew to Riyadh to offer his condolences. He declared a period of mourning in Turkey and ordered the Turkish flag to be flown at half-mast. During Erdogan’s recent meeting with the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, the two countries agreed to increase Saudi-Turkish support of the Syrian opposition. Reportedly Salman promised to support Turkey’s demand of a no-fly zone in Syria.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia had enjoyed close ties under the AKP, with flourishing trade and investment flows. These ties peaked in the first two years of the Syrian conflict when Ankara and Riyadh both threw their support behind the Syrian opposition in an effort to topple the Assad regime. Turkish-Saudi cooperation suffered a blow, however, when the two countries found themselves on opposing sides in Egypt in the summer of 2013. While the Saudis became ardent supporters of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and branded Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group a terrorist organization, Turkey welcomed Brotherhood figures seeking refuge. Turkey’s criticism of the Gulf countries for supporting the removal of the Egyptian Brotherhood drove a wedge between Ankara and Riyadh. Riyadh then played a key role in the campaign against Turkey’s bid for a Security Council seat at the United Nations in October 2014.
The rapprochement with Riyadh comes at a time when Turkey has found itself increasingly marginalized in regional affairs. Particularly concerning for Ankara is Iran’s growing influence in Iraq at Turkey’s expense, as well as Washington’s failure to act more forcefully against the Assad regime.
The Islamic State’s capture of large swathes of Iraqi land has strengthened Iran’s hand, in large part due to the success of Iraqi Shi‘i militias—many of which are Iranian proxies—in regaining this territory. In an interview after the Islamic State captured Mosul and threatened the KRG capital of Erbil, Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) presidency, expressed Erbil’s dissatisfaction with Turkey for offering words instead of actions at a time of imminent danger. Hussein said, “Turkey consistently reiterated that if the security of the Kurdistan Region is threatened they would intervene. Well, our security was under threat, but still we did not receive any support from Turkey.” And at a joint news conference with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, KRG President Massoud Barzani said that Iran was the first state to help the KRG and provide the Kurds with weapons and equipment.
Disturbed by Iran’s increased role in Iraq, Turkey repeatedly called for the restructuring of the Iraqi Army to include Sunnis, but to little avail. After a period of tension under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Turkey has made overtures to mend fences with the new government of Haider al-Abadi. During Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to Baghdad in November, Davutoglu stressed Turkey’s pleasure at seeing an inclusive government in Baghdad and reiterated Turkey’s commitment to Iraq’s security and unity.
The mismatch between Ankara’s and Washington’s approaches to the conflict in Syria has only added to Turkey’s frustration. Turkey has long criticized the Obama administration’s unwillingness to take more forceful measures against the Assad regime, while Washington has been frustrated with its NATO ally’s refusal to give the United States access to the Incirlik Air Base to stage attacks against ISIS. But the Turkish government insists that it will only consider this U.S. demand if Washington agrees to target the Assad regime and set up a no-fly zone in Syria to halt regime attacks on the opposition. In February, the two signed an agreement to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition fighters. As part of the plan, the United States will send more than 400 troops to Turkey, and Ankara will host the rebels while training is underway. Despite the deal, Washington and Ankara are still not on the same page on Syria, with the former saying that the force will be used exclusively against the Islamic State and the latter insisting that it must also target the Assad regime.
Convinced that an Iranian-led Shi‘i axis is forming to its south and that the United States is unwilling to follow its advice on Syria, Ankara has turned to its once close ally, Saudi Arabia, to reclaim its leadership role in regional matters, counter Iran’s growing sway, and win over Saudi support for its Syria policy. In an opinion piece in the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, Ibrahim Kalin, the president’s spokesperson, said that the strategic needs and priorities of Ankara and Riyadh require closer and more extensive cooperation on regional issues such as the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine. The two seem to have decided to put their differences aside for now in favor of a joint strategy in Syria and against Iran. Yet there are several potential roadblocks ahead.
For the two countries to agree on a joint strategy for Syria, Libya, Yemen, and the peace process, they must iron out their differences over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. A possible compromise might be Saudi Arabia softening its stance on the Brotherhood in exchange for Turkey rebuilding its relations with today’s Sisi-led Egypt.
The two might encounter challenges in regard to Syria as well. Riyadh and Ankara have prioritized the removal of the Assad regime, and both are frustrated with the United States’ Syria policy. Turkey is hoping to secure Saudi support for its no-fly zone demand and to strengthen its hand vis-à-vis the United States in Syria. But Turkey might soon find that Saudi support will not go a long way toward convincing the West to establish a no-fly zone and fight the Assad regime. And without Western support, Ankara and Riyadh are unlikely to tip the balance in Syria.
The two have also not entirely agreed on which groups to support on the ground. Turkey has long supported Jabhat al-Nusra, a group with which the Saudis are very uncomfortable. Ankara has recently embarked on a strategy to leverage the group against the Islamic State, making a joint ground strategy even more complicated.
Turkey’s stance on Iran could be another complicating factor. There are limits to how far Turkey can go to counter Iran. Turkey imports about 20 percent of its oil and gas from Iran, and the two have recently cultivated closer economic relations. In the past, despite disagreements in regard to Syria and Iraq, Turkey refrained from alienating Iran. It is likely to pursue a similar approach in the future.
Saudi-Turkey cooperation is more likely to yield results in Iraq. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have close ties to Sunni tribes and can use their leverage to mobilize these tribes against the Islamic State. Putting a Sunni face on the operation in Mosul might go a long way toward easing sectarian tensions and undermining the Islamic State’s social base.
Joint frustrations and fears seem to be bringing Riyadh and Ankara together. But how far and deep this new rapprochement can go remains to be seen.
Dr. Gönül Tol is the founding director of the Middle East Institute's Centre for Turkish Studies