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Misalignment or Realignment for Turkey and Saudi Arabia? Problems with an “anti-Iran Sunni bloc”

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As Riyadh works towards an anti-Iran Sunni bloc, the energy resource-interdependency between Turkey and Iran could prove a more salient driver of Ankara’s foreign policy. The convergence of Saudi-Turkish relations in Syria is further limited by regional policy differences. As Iran and Iraq, together, could represent a serious challenge to Saudi Arabia’s predominance in OPEC in the near future, Turkey should protect its investments in Iraq and its geopolitical advantage across the Middle East as a non-sectarian power.

Bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey are limited by regional policy differences in Egypt, Gaza, and Libya. Turkey remains a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in rhetoric. Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched consistent criticism against the West for supporting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi ordered the violent crackdown against and imprisonment of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Huffington Post states, “Saudi Arabia lauded the move as a crackdown on terrorism and promised to compensate Sisi for any military or economic aid withheld by the U.S. and the European Union in response to the coup.”[1] The Gaza war between Hamas and Israel led to further tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which supported Egypt’s ceasefire initiative. In a July 24, 2014 interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson, Erdogan referred to Sisi as a “tyrant” and Israel as a “terror state.” In October 2014, Saudi Arabia and Egypt led an intense campaign against Turkey trying to become a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. The Turkish-Saudi rivalry is also present in Libya. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supports the government in Tripoli, which was conquered by Islamists influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, over the more internationally-recognized government in Tobruk, which is supported by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The conflict in Syria represents the most visible point of convergence for Saudi-Turkish relations. Riyadh envisions a plan where Turkey would provide ground troops and Saudi Arabia would commence with airstrikes in northern Syria.  Al Jazeera’s Oytun Orhan told Alex Rowell of Now: “After [the coronation of] King Salman, there are signs that these tensions will be overcome and [Saudi and Turkey] will cooperate and coordinate more in the region. In Syria, specifically, they might harmonize their policies, but again, this will never lead to a unified military intervention with Turkish ground forces.”[2] Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia support the non-Islamic State opposition and the removal of Assad. As Erdogan and the AKP fight for reelection, regional interests will inevitably prevail. Therefore, the tangible benefits for Turkey, in fighting under a Saudi-led coalition in Syria, remain limited.

Turkey has balanced its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is not identified with either pole of “the region’s toxic ethnic (Arab-Persian) and religious (Saudi Wahhabi-Iranian Rule of the Jurist) divides.”[3] Regional policy differences, largely centered on the Muslim Brotherhood, limit the prospects of more direct Saudi-Turkish cooperation and also of Turkish mediation in Yemen. However, more significant is the energy trade between Turkey and Iran. This trade, which is based on energy resource-interdependency, has not been limited by foreign policy differences in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Turkey has the better hand, as Tehran needs Ankara more than Ankara needs Tehran. If sanctions are lifted, the future of Iranian natural gas could be realized through the completion (planned for 2018) of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). TANAP would connect to the South Caucasus pipeline and the planned Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). As these transit routes completely bypass Russia and its pipeline network, Taner Yildiz, the Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, said that “Iranian natural gas will be an important supply source for Europe.”[4] Despite the high prices and unreliability associated with Iran’s underdeveloped gas industry, Iranian natural gas imports are of strategic importance for Ankara. The successors of the Safavid and Ottoman Empires are competing for geopolitical advantages in the Middle East. Yet, mutual tangible benefits for Iran and Turkey, especially in the energy trade, limit the likelihood of Turkey being drawn into a Saudi-led anti-Iran Sunni bloc. Iran is also Turkey’s top supplier of crude oil, representing 35% of total crude imports (Turkey buys 17% of its crude from Iraq, 13% from Saudi Arabia, and 10% from Russia). The warming of relations between Iran and the West, with the lifting of sanctions, would afford Iran major opportunities for growth in its oil and natural gas sectors. This growth would spillover into Turkey.

The critical issue dividing Iran and Turkey remains Syria. However, both countries, despite a geopolitical rivalry, are vested in a unified and federalized Iraq. In a 2011 report, Sean Kane of the United States Institute for Peace states, “Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to represent the starkest opposing tendencies in Iraq, but Turkish influence is the most significant regional counterweight to Iranian preeminence.”[5] In applying its soft power, Turkey does not want to be seen as just another Sunni power in Iraq. According to Kane, “Turkey’s comparative advantage in Iraq lies in its perceived neutrality and the economic integration with the region and European markets it can help provide.”[6] As Turkish-Iraqi trade continues to increase, so will the smoothing of relations between Turkey and Iran. In addition, the advance of the Daesh in Iraq is very much linked to the warming of relations between Iran and the United States, which, after fighting from 2003 to 2011, lost thousands of lives and billions in investment in Iraq. J.S. Duffield in Why Did the United States Invade Iraq? (2012) states, “freeing up Iraq’s oil production might have been expected to benefit the United States by reducing Saudi influence over world oil markets. US reliance on Saudi Arabia to stabilize world oil markets limited the ability of the United States to criticize Saudi policies and to promote desired domestic political, economic, and social reforms.”[7]

Turkey should limit its involvement in a Saudi-led coalition in Syria and Yemen. Despite already playing a nasty game in Iraq and Syria, Turkey fills an important role in balancing the regional ambitions of Iran and, perhaps less so, Saudi Arabia. Involvement in a Saudi-led coalition, thus, limits Turkey’s geopolitical advantages in the region.

[1] Ryan Grim, Sophia Jones, & Jessica Schulberg, “Saudi Arabia, Turkey Discussing Unlikely Alliance to Oust Syria’s Assad,” Huffington Post, April 12, 2015, accessed April 16, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/12/saudi-arabia-turkey-syria_n_7012268.html.

[2] Alex Rowell, “A Saudi-Turkey intervention in Syria?” NOW., April 16, 2015, accessed April 16, 2015, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/reportsfeatures/565127-a-saudi-turkey-intervention-in-syria.

[3] Sean Kane, “SPECIAL REPORT: The Coming Turkish-Iranian Competition in Iraq,” United States Institute of Peace, June 2011, accessed April 16, 2015, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Turkish_Iranian_Competition.pdf, 9.

[4]Orhan Gafarli, “Iranian-Turkish Relations Vis-à-vis Turkey’s Transit Policy,” The Jamestown Foundation, November 14, 2014, accessed April 16, 2015, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=43089&cHash=b55fe4c0a1e57f98baf345102f2e635a#.VSS1B5Ny1dM.

[5] Ibid, 9.

[6] Ibid, 10.

[7] John S. Duffield, “Oil and the decision to invade Iraq,” in Why Did the United States Invade Iraq (New York: Routledge, 2012), 161.

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