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Turkey – Saudi Arabia – Egypt Regional Triangle in the Offing

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Tehran and Expert on Middle East Issues

At a time of popular uprisings in the Middle East, especially in recent months, cooperation and coordination among policies adopted by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other members of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] in Syria, including for sending money and military equipment to the Syrian opposition via Turkey, has increased. The first question, however, is why Turkey, which aimed to reduce problems with neighboring countries to zero under the rule of the Justice and Development Party with Ahmet Davutoglu as foreign minister, has opted for such a weird policy toward Syria? The second question, however, is will this cooperation remain limited to Syria or extend to other regional issues as well?

Specifically since Ahmet Davutoglu was appointed Turkey’s foreign minister, the country has been following a new policy in its foreign relations based on his viewpoints. That policy which had been described and theorized as “reducing problems to zero,” put the highest emphasis on reducing tension with all countries and geographical regions around Turkey. Although certain exceptions were later made to this policy, at least, in relation to Israel, it proved capable of renovating Turkey’s Middle Eastern policies in a relatively short period of time. In addition, it increased Turkey’s bargaining power in negotiations with the European Union; a Union whose doors had been kept close to an aspiring Turkey which had waited many decades for accession.

In this way, Turkey managed once more to turn into a major power in the Middle East. However, there was a stumbling block on the way of the expansion of Turkey’s influence in the Middle East in a way that would allow Ankara evolve into an active and determining power in the region. That problem was this: Turkey was surrounded on the south by the anti-Israeli “resistance belt,” which was called by some analysts as “Shia Crescent” and was an area of influence for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Turkey first tried to increase its clout in Iraq. However, Iran had already taken the initiative in that country. On the other hand, Iran’s Iraqi allies are much more powerful than those who supported expansion of ties with Turkey. Syria was Turkey’s second choice. Expansion of relations with Syria and strengthening of ties with Damascus was, of course, not equivalent to expansion of Turkey’s regional influence. By trying to gain foothold in Syria, Ankara practically owned up to failure of its efforts in Iraq. Increasing tension with Israel was also meant to align the public opinion in the region with the regional policies of Islamist politicians in Turkey. Despite its temporary effect, this policy failed to practically reduce Turkey’s geographical isolation in the Middle East.

Although due to presence of Islamist figures at the apex of the power pyramid, Turkey has had warm relations with the anti-Israeli resistance axis in the Middle East, it had also established warm ties with more moderate countries through Davutoglu’s keen insight. In fact, due to the policy of “reducing problems to zero,” Ankara did not want to overtly belong to any political grouping in the region’s political sphere. The problem, however, started when apparently the insightful Davutoglu forgot about the strength of relations among members of the resistance axis or, at least, between Iran and Syria.

Throughout popular uprisings in Arab countries and in order to expand its regional influence in the Middle East, Turkey sided with protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In Yemen, however, it supported the mechanism that was proposed by the West and the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council. In the case of the Egyptian revolution, Turkey separated its relations with the (P)GCC member states from relations with Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and was able in doing this to maintain cordial relations with the (P)GCC members. As the unrest in Syria started, Ankara took sides with the opposition to the Syrian government, believing that like Egypt, it can separate relations with Iran from relations with Syria. Perhaps Davutoglu assumed that the Syrian crisis would wrap off to a rapid closing with the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad, like previous uprisings in the Middle East, and this would pave the way for Turkey to increase its influence in Syria. In this way, Turkey aimed to bring down the strong wall that the resistance axis had put on the way of its advancement in the Middle East. Ankara’s calculations, however, proved less than accurate. Neither Iran’s relations with Syria could be broken like relations between Riyadh and Cairo, nor could Assad be toppled as fast as Mubarak. However, Turkey had already burned its bridges as tension in its relations with Iran and Syria had reached its peak.

In the meantime, the (P)GCC and Riyadh took rapid action. Following a joint meeting attended by foreign ministers of the (P)GCC and Turkey in Istanbul in February 2012, the two sides reached a bilateral agreement on how to interact with the ongoing crisis in Syria. Of course, the two sides had already cooperated in helping the Syrian opposition. In 2012, however, a coordinated axis with two parts in the south and north of Syria, took measures on Syria in unison. Provision of money and weapons by the (P)GCC which reached the Syrian opposition through logistical support from Turkey proved that the two sides have reached a final agreement on the downfall of Assad and had also agreed to divide the tasks in this regard. Creating a gap in the crescent of Iran’s regional influence in the Middle East was a common goal which brought Arab states – excluding Iraq – quite close to Turkey.

Apart from the axial role played by Turkey and Saudi Arabia in this regard, they are also trying to align the new Egyptian government with their goals. Although Islamist politicians in Egypt have their own suspicions about the coordinated efforts of Assad’s northern and southern neighbors against him and their ultimate goals, they believe that it would be better for Cairo to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and adopt a discourse that would be in line with the discourse of Turkey – Saudi Arabia axis. Ideological affiliations of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are also instrumental in making them support the Syrian opposition. However, those affiliations are secondary to Egypt’s economic interests. In the current Middle Eastern policy of Egypt, the end justifies the means. Therefore, the new Middle East is witnessing creation of a new diplomatic triangle which unlike the previous triangle that took shape in the 1990s (and consisted of Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) is not a purely Arab triangle as Turkey, instead of Syria, is currently forming one side of the new triangle. Every one of these countries is pursuing certain goals which make it take sides with the other two states under the current circumstances in the Middle East. Turkey is looking for a way to boost its influence in the Middle East and, in doing so, is trying to break free from the shackles of the resistance axis which had already barred southward expansion of its influence. Egypt seeks financial and economic support and believes that alignment with the other two members of the axis is in its favor under present circumstances. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is not only trying to make up for the fall of Mubarak and weakening of Arab moderates axis in the region, but also aims to curb Iran’s regional influence. Therefore, Riyadh cannot, and should not, be considered just a side of the triangle as Saudi Arabia is currently having the initiative. The other two countries have chosen to accompany Saudi Arabia as they see this to be in favor of their regional interests under the present conditions.

Key Words: Turkey – Saudi Arabia – Egypt, Regional Triangle, [(P)GCC, Syria, Shia Crescent, Resistance Axis, Ahmadian

More By Hassan Ahmadian:

*Implications of Bandar Bin Sultan’s Return to Power: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Implications-of-Bandar-Bin-Sultan-s-Return-to-Power.htm

*Egyptian Army and the Second Republic: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Egyptian_Army_and_the_Second_Republic.htm

*The Truth Behind Saudi Arabia’s Fear of a Nuclear Iran: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The_Truth_behind_Saudi_Arabia’s_Fear_of_a_Nuclear_Iran.htm

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