Saudi-Turkish cooperation: Opportunities and challenges

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

By : Raghida Dergham

The strategic cooperation council established by Saudi Arabia and Turkey is one step above a bilateral alliance, and its goal goes beyond restoring balance to Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria, and thus requires an in-depth examination of Saudi-Egyptian, Turkish-Russian, and Turkish-Egyptian relations. Meanwhile, Iran and Qatar are both relevant to the developments in Saudi-Turkish relations, as are the U.S., ISIS, and the Syrian opposition.

There are both convergences and divergences in Saudi-Turkish relations, which were upgraded this week to the level of strategic cooperation. The linchpin of this strategic cooperation council will be the mechanisms of activating the alliance should developments in Syria require intervention to counter Russian protection of Bashar al-Assad.

Other challenges include reconciling Turkish hostility to the Kurdish organizations and the aspirations of the Kurds, with Saudi Arabian neutrality in this matter.

Furthermore, there are several grey areas when it comes to the fight against radical Sunni groups Washington and Moscow designate as terrorist groups, despite the fact that Ankara and Riyadh have agreed to fight ISIS and similar groups that pose an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, perhaps more so than to Turkey.

The first country of concern in this context is Egypt. Egypt, an ally of Saudi Arabia, has tense relations with Turkey. The government of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi sees the Turkish government under Recept Tayyip Erdogan to be an incubator of the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus sees any Saudi-Turkey rapprochement as rapprochement over the Muslim Brotherhood, which were designated in the past as a terrorist group by Riyadh. Cairo wants the Muslim Brotherhood to continue to have that designation, and fears that the rapprochement might entail a reversal of that designation. Already, there are liberal as well as Muslim brotherhood voices that believe the kingdom’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood is harmful and unnecessary.

The Saudi-Turkish cooperation council is an important event, but it is no alternative to the Gulf Cooperation Council, nor is it an alternative to the regional security system that Iran is seeking to build.

Raghida Dergham

Despite some tension over Cairo’s attitudes vis-à-vis Syria, Yemen, and anti-terrorism Saudi is determined to maintain the alliance with Egypt and preserve the regime there. For its part, Egypt is appreciative of the indispensable Saudi, Emirati, and Kuwaiti support despite its resentment over Gulf expectations and the fact that it has had to take a back seat in Arab leadership in the present time. Ultimately, both Cairo and Riyadh realize that Egypt is vital, pivotal, and irreplaceable in the regional balance of power.

Arab heavyweights

However, with the establishment of a Saudi-Turkish strategic alliance, Egypt must be asking what place it will have in it, and how its position in the Arab strategic weight will be reconciled in the regional balance of power. Saudi’s response is that there is no contradiction between the two, as evidenced by the commitment to the continuation of the alliance. Clearly, there is a need for a profound dialogue between the two Arab heavyweights.

Russia is on good terms with Egypt and has interesting relations with Saudi Arabia. One of the aspects of strategic Russian-Egyptian cooperation stems from their combined hostility to Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In turn, this has led to Russian-Egyptian convergence on Syria, at a time when Saudi and Russian attitudes on Syria are diverging while Russian-Turkish attitudes there are clashing outright.

The pragmatism Saudi diplomacy currently adopts led Riyadh to seek a working relation with Moscow, despite profound differences over Syria, which has helped set the Vienna peace process in motion and bring in Iran to the table of discussions surrounding Syria’s fate. It is the same kind of pragmatism that has prompted Riyadh to establish a strategic cooperation council with Ankara, at the height of Russian-Turkish tension, while at the same time voiding any animus with Moscow.

For its part, Moscow pledged not to intervene in Yemen against the Arab coalition. This week, Moscow rejected a request from ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to take action against the Saudi-led coalition.

Yemen is a top Saudi priority, both militarily and diplomatically, including at the UN, where Moscow’s role is extremely important. So no matter how deep Saudi disputes are with Russia over Syria or Iran, Riyadh is keen on maintaining its newfound pragmatic ties with Moscow for both tactical and long-term strategic calculations.

Moscow, for its part, wants to maintain strong relations with Saudi Arabia, as long as Riyadh does not condition this on disengagement with Iran and Syria.

This pragmatism is to thank in part for the Vienna process, which has brought together around twenty nations, led by the U.S., Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who all followed the plans drafted by Russian diplomacy culminating with the third round in New York that produced an unprecedented U.N. Security resolution on Syria.

Resolution No. 2259 deferred contentious issues, led by the fate of Bashar al-Assad during the transitional process, the question of which opposition figures are acceptable, and the question of which groups in Syria are terror organizations. The Vienna process resolution, midwifed by Russia, bypassed the Geneva Communique, which called for a transitional period during which Assad hands over power to an executive governing body. The new resolution effectively repealed the Geneva Communique and bypassed the “Assad Knot.”

The list of proposals given to Jordan, which has been assigned by the Vienna nations to prepare a list of groups to be listed as terrorist organizations, was also deferred, containing 167 putative groups. The reason is the anger expressed by Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the latest meeting of the Vienna process in New York, when he learned the Qods Force and Hezbollah were included in the list. The meeting was then suspended, the list was buried, and work has restarted from scratch on a new list.

Turkey, in turn, has listed the groups it considers to be terror organizations, including the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). For its part, Russia has focused its gaze on the list of Syrian opposition group prepared by Riyadh in the wake of a previous meeting of the Syrian opposition. However, Moscow insisted on merely referring to that effort in the preamble to resolution 2259, and removed it from the operative clauses that were originally meant to endorse the list.

The political battle over the implementation of resolution 2259, which for the first time endorsed a political process in Syria since the conflict there began five years ago, is inevitable. Saudi Arabia and Turkey want to include figures and groups in the terror lists that Russia do not want included. However, Riyadh wants to benefit from Ankara to pressure on Iran not just with regard to the list, but also to curb Iranian meddling in the region, and agree on mechanisms that guarantee the effectiveness of the alliance against terrorism and counter Russian protection of Assad.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir had declared the creation of the joint strategic cooperation council in a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart following the summit between King Salman and President Erdogan in Riyadh last week.

Tenser by the day

He said the purpose of the council includes deeper coordination with Turkey in light of the challenges both countries face in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, from terrorism to extremism to Iran’s negative intervention in regional issues.

Countering challenges will not be easy however. Turkey is not an effective participant in the war with ISIS and similar groups in Syria, and its main concern is the Kurds as the regime is weakened. Turkey is opposed to secular groups, including Kurdish groups, which reveals its keenness on empowering Islamist groups. In Iraq, Turkey is at odds with Saudi Arabia in a way; Saudi has normalized relations with Baghdad after 25 years of estrangement, while Turkish-Iraqi relations grow tenser by the day. True, both countries have reservations with regard to the government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, but they have different reasons. While Turkey’s reasons have Kurdish dimensions, Saudi’s have Iranian dimensions. Yet both are pursuing the restoration of the Sunni element in the balance of power after ISIS fled from Ramadi.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both crucial for the quest to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Saudi-Turkish cooperation council is an important event, but it is no alternative to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain. Nor is it an alternative to the regional security system that Iran is seeking to build, to include it, Iraq and the countries of the GCC after the latter is dismantled. It is an important event that requires profound analysis and follow-up.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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