The moving labyrinth of Middle Eastern foreign policy: Turkey and Saudi Arabia

Published in NOW on Friday.

Last weekend, the Hazzm Movement, a moderate Syrian insurgent group backed by the US with the logistic help of Saudi Arabia, joinedthe Turkey-backed Levant Front (Jabhat al-Shamiah) Islamist coalition, which is based in Aleppo. The move came after the Hazzm Movement faced increased military pressure from jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria during a war in Idlib that started in the fall of 2014.

“We ask our brothers in all other factions to resolve their disagreements with the movement through the leadership of the Levant Front,” a statement of the coalition read, as the group assumed the role of mediator between the secular group and jihadist fighters.

The Turkish government has recently made several moves that indicate a desire to warm its relations with Saudi Arabia, among which was the Turkish president’s presence at Saudi King Abdallah’s funeral. Some Syrian opposition members are supportive of these moves. Analysts acknowledge that Turkey dances on a shoestring when it comes to its foreign policy, though others don’t see in these efforts a necessary change in the relationship between Riyadh and Ankara. 

Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy shift in 2014

When Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy on Syria changed radically early last year, Prince Bandar al Sultan, who actively backed Syrian rebel factions by sending weapons and supplies, was replaced by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The latter played more by Western — particularly America’s — rules. Nayef started a crackdown on Saudi jihadists traveling to Syria and participated in the air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Under his line of foreign policy towards Syria, Saudi Arabia was one of the countries the US administration called on to help train moderate Syrian rebel groups. When the United Nations ran out of money for aid at the end of last year, the Saudi government donated $5 million to the World Food Programme. It also reportedly equipped Hazzm brigades with TOW anti-tank missiles.

Moreover, the shift in foreign policy was visible in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Qatar: in March 2014, Riyadh withdrew its envoy from Doha together with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and threatened a blockade unless Qatar toned down its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria.

Turkey’s foreign policy double standards

It’s been Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria that has kept its relationship with Riyadh quite cold. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has found shelter in Ankara and Istanbul since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Turkey supported the Muslim Brothers and Mohammad Morsi’s presidential tenure in Egypt, too, to the discontent of Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia rejoiced at the fall of Morsi and the rise of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Turkey was disconsolate.

Moreover, when Qatar hinted that the Muslim Brothers were not as welcome in Doha as they had been — extending even to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal — the Brotherhood looked for help in Turkey. Meshaal was received very well by Turkish leaders, which raised concerns in Washington. Jen Psaki, US State Department spokesperson said at the time: “We continue to raise our concerns about the relationship between Hamas and Turkey with senior Turkish officials, including after learning of Mashaal’s recent visit there. And we have urged the government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions and prevent violence.” Riyadh viewed Meshaal’s visit to Turkey the same way.

But when Saudi King Abdullah’s death was announced, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suspended his tour of Africa to attend the funeral. Turkey even declared a day of mourning.

Erdogan said his presence at the king’s funeral was meant to show the importance the Turkish government gave the nations’ relations. “There are topics that we agree on. On Egypt, as well as on Syria and Palestine, there are issues where we don’t see eye to eye. We don’t want such differences to cloud bilateral ties,” he said, prompting analysts to expect a “new page in the relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told NOW that it is only natural for Turkey to carefully choose its stances given its special status in the region. “Clearly there has been a change in the dynamics in the Middle East and it seems that Qatar is now taking a more prudent approach with Islamist movements and taking a different stand on Egypt,” he said. “Turkey is definitely in a specific position given its membership in NATO and its status of negotiating country with the EU. What makes up Turkey’s strong security environment is NATO and what drives its economy [exports, investments, technology] is the EU. Turkey has been deriving major benefits from these two affiliations — NATO and the EU — and it would be very risky to put these benefits in jeopardy with foreign policy choices in contradiction with these fundamental ‘anchors.’”

On the Syrian front

Oytun Orhan, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Turkey, told NOW that Ankara has to adapt to the rapidly changing situation on the ground in Syria while remaining consistent with its initial stance — regime change in Syria. “Turkey is one of the countries that didn’t make any critical changes in its foreign policy towards the Syrian conflict, although there is the immediate threat,” Orhan said. “Turkey perceives ISIS as a direct threat. Turkey is a direct, immediate target. ISIS controls a very important part of the border — some terrorist attacks happened on Turkish soil. The Turkish military also bombed ISIS,” he added. “But Turkey has a more comprehensive policy. For Ankara, ISIS is the result, not the reason. The Assad regime is the reason. The Turkish take is that there are changes in the regime in Damascus that need to be made; it’s not just a war against ISIS. In that context, Turkey is always in contact with the Syrian Coalition — it supports the political opposition.”

In Syria, says, Orhan, the devil is in the details. “From the political aspect, in general, Saudi Arabia and Turkey might be on the same side, but on the ground they compete. In the military field, for example, each country supports different groups. I don’t see a real cooperation on the ground.”

A Syrian opposition activist based in Turkey told NOW that the Hazzm Movement’s fusion with the Levant Front might not mean much at the diplomatic level. “It’s not clear yet, but I think this merger was done by the people on the ground because of the situation on the field,” he said. “They were tired of fighting each other. The regime was taking advantage of this. It has nothing to do with what Turkey wants or what Saudi Arabia wants.”

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

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