Collapse of Turkish-Saudi Strategic Alliance

29.03.2016

The Russian intervention in Syria played a significant role in the collapse of the “Turkish-Saudi Alliance”. Saudi Arabia would engage more in rapprochement with Russia to explore ways for eventual political solution of the Syrian crisis.

At the end of 2015 Turkish president Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia for the third time in a year and announced the “Strategic Alliance” between Ankara and Riyadh. The Arab media celebrated the event as extraordinary cooperation against Iran and the Syrian regime. But the events in Syria and recent visit of Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu to Tehran meant an end of the so called “Turkish- Saudi Strategic Alliance”.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the “Arab Spring”

The “Arab Spring” gave Turkey a historical chance to expand politically outside its borders with green light from the USA. As the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya came to power, the Turkish ambitions found their height. Turkey traditionally has military strength, economic and geopolitical advantage in comparison to its neighbors in all geographic areas, except Russia. Since its establishment in 1923, the Turkish republic was boxed within its own borders, because the Cold war draws red lines for Ankara. After the end of the Cold war Turkey hoped to boost its influence in Balkans, but European countries took counter measures. At the same time Russia prevented Turkey from obtaining such influence in Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkish ambitions to expand influence outside its borders skyrocketed in 2011- 2012 during the so-called “Arab Spring”. The reasons were the following: power vacuum in the Middle East, US tolerance for a new Turkish role and the success of the “Muslim Brotherhood” in getting power in Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli.

From Saudi perspective, that third reason was a threat to Saudi role as guarantor of Islam in the region, despite the fact that Riyadh itself supported the “Muslim Brotherhood” for decades to counterbalance the influence of Nasserism and Leftism in the Arab world. Saudi concerns rose after Turkey's alliance with the “Muslim Brotherhood”, so the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia openly criticized Erdogan and supported the overthrow of the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt in July 2013.

The emergence of an Alliance

After coming to power in early 2015, the new King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdul Aziz changed the priorities of his country. His priority became confronting Iran over fighting Terrorism. Turkey was once again interesting “strategic partner” for Saudi Arabia despite its alliance with the “Muslim Brotherhood”. Saudi Arabia main goal was to drive Iranian influence away from Syria and the whole Levant. From his part, Erdogan suffered from a setback after the “Muslim Brotherhood” lost power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The Syrian regime was not replaced by an ally of Erdogan as he hoped, and the Turkish economy is addicted to the short term deposits coming from Saudi Arabia to keep intact the exchange rate of the Turkish Lira versus US Dollar. Despite their historical rivalry for the leadership in the Sunni Islamic world, both countries seemed to overcome their differences to challenge Iran and its ally the Syrian regime in order to change the power balance in the region.

End of a “Strategic Alliance”

The Russian intervention in Syria played a significant role in the collapse of the “Turkish-Saudi Alliance”, since Turkish actions in Syria were brought effectively to the end. Turkey is not able to conduct ground or air operations in Syria and thus Ankara is not useful for Saudi goals any more. Different goals of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Syria also facilitated the collapse of such alliance, since the Syrian president was the adhesive material for such alliance. Saudi Arabia’s efforts in Syria are concentrated on toppling Al Assad in order to curb Iranian influence in the region, where as Turkish ones are far more complicated. Turkey wishes to ban the Kurds from the peace process of political settlement in Syria. Moreover, Ankara wants an economic hegemony over North Syria, plus a “safe zone” there and replacing Al Assad with a Turkish ally. All those goals are not doable currently in Syria because of the present balance of power.

Furthermore, the Syrian opposition fractions allied with Turkey lost immensely political ground in favour of the ones allied with Saudi Arabia. In short, the “strategic Alliance” turned into a race between Riyadh and Ankara regarding consolidating alliances between Syrian opposition groups.

Conclusion

A Saudi-Russian rapprochement over Syria seems to be more real than a Turkish-Russian one. Turkey will remain a partner of Saudi Arabia, but the framework of “Strategic Alliance” is not adequate any more to describe the relations between two countries. Turkey would try to balance its interests between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ankara has common goal with Tehran to prevent the consolidation of Kurds in North Syria. At the same time Turkey needs Saudi money and investments to keep the economy afloat. Maybe such balancing policy could minimize Turkish losses, but it would at the same time it means the loss of Turkish influence as a major regional power in Levant.

Erdogan would most probably concentrate his efforts in changing of the political system in Turkey, transforming it into a presidential one. That means that Turkish ambitions will again remain boxed within its own borders as it was during the last century. Ankara will be busy in the upcoming months with preparations for a parliament majority to transfer a constitution draft to a public referendum and then with the internal struggle accompanying such referendum. Saudi Arabia, for its part, would probably engage more in rapprochement with Russia to explore ways for eventual political solution of the Syrian crisis.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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