by Dan Mueller
In the ongoing regional Sunni revolt against the Shia and Alawite dominated governments of Iraq and Syria respectively, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are separately becoming involved in what amounts to a war within a war, but with an ideological tone to it. Riyadh and Ankara are engaged in an ideological version of a proxy war that shares some common strategic objectives such as curtailing Iranian influence and undermining the latter’s regional interests. However, in a separate theatre, the two Sunni heavyweights—to use a phrase reflective of the region’s increasingly sectarian dynamics—have grown far apart over some key regional developments such as containment of ISIS/ISIL, support for anti-Assad rebel forces, developing a policy to address the Muslim Brotherhood, and the future of a post-Assad Syria.
The rise of AKP under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership, along with Turkey’s successful economic reforms, led to the emergence of a new foreign policy doctrine known as “zero-problem.” This policy—engineered by former Foreign Minister and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu—was predicated on Turkey’s newfound self-confidence. Turkey’s emergence as an economic powerhouse was welcomed by the Arab world as a much-needed counterweight to Iran and what they see as Tehran’s deeply ideological and hegemonic foreign policy. Turkish investment rose dramatically in the region, including in Saudi Arabia, with the Turkish private sector making its presence known in nearly the entire Arab world. But the ideological rift between two of the largest regional economies began to surface as the Arab Spring turned into a cold winter and the violence in Syria spiraled out of control.
Saudi Arabia, which views the Muslim Brotherhood with utter contempt, was disenchanted with Erdogan’s tilt toward the Brotherhood and his support for the group both during and after the Arab Spring revolts. The Saudi leadership considers the Brotherhood’s pluralistic and civilian values as a threat to the tribal and ethnic values of Wahabism. They believe the Brotherhood is revolutionary in nature, aspiring to bring about social change in Muslim societies that counters Saudi views. Whereas the Saudis believe that socio-cultural development should be based on familial loyalties, the Brotherhood’s views are based on the inclusion of nearly all segments of society. Therefore, the Brotherhood’s ideology suits those who are not related to ruling families and seek change to ameliorate their socio-political status in their respective societies.
Turkey’s ideological kinship with the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to AKP’s infancy in the 1960’s, then called the National Outlook Movement, which morphed into the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) in the 1980’s. At the time, the Welfare Party had supporters and advisors in the Brotherhood from Egypt and Tunisia. The Welfare Party governed Turkey from 1996 to 1997 until Turkey’s secular establishment overthrew it because its policies were too Islamic and too distant from the secular values of the Turkish Republic.
Syria and Iraq
While events in North Africa undoubtedly exposed the fragility of Turkey’s new foreign policy doctrine, it was the civil war in Syria that dealt the policy’s largest blow. From the outset, Ankara supported the Syrian opposition. In doing so, Turkey hoped that Sunnis keen to strengthen ties with Ankara would dominate the post-Assad government. This helps explain why Ankara has given refuge to key anti-Assad opposition figures, including leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and has allowed foreign fighters from all over the world to cross from Turkish territory into Syria.
As the Syrian civil war plunged the country deeper into cycles of violence and—thanks to Iran and Russia—Assad proved his resilience, Turkey stepped up its support for various Syrian rebels. Turkey’s determination to negotiate the outcome of the civil war in Syria and ensure the establishment of a Sunni and Turkish-friendly regime in Damascus ran counter to Saudi strategic objectives.
Cognizant of President Erdogan’s and his AKP party’s ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi royals grew uneasy with Turkish foreign policy in Syria. Today their differences have grown over the leadership and shape of Syrian armed rebels. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have proposed to train Syrian rebels in their respective territories, but the forces under their tutelage would be subservient to them ideologically. This is an area of great contention based on differences on each country’s state ideology. This is while both are members of U.S.-led coalition against ISIS but with questionable contribution to the coalition and harboring doubts about American resolve in defeating ISIS.
Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey view the ouster of Assad as the key and fundamental prerequisite for ISIS’s defeat. Separately, however, Riyadh and Ankara view ISIS through different prisms. Saudi Arabia has come to view ISIS as a threat to the future of Saudi monarchy and the Islamic discourse in the Sunni world, while Turkey views and uses ISIS as a useful geopolitical tool.
Turkey’s geographic proximity to developments in Syria compels it to develop its own strategic imperatives, including those involving ISIS and the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime.
Turkey’s well-publicized reticence on the radical Sunni group (ISIS) has raised the ire of many Western analysts and policy makers. From a strategic perspective, so far ISIS has not posed an immediate threat to Turkish national interests. In fact, ISIS has served Turkey well in dividing the Kurds and disrupting the emergence of a sovereign Kurdish region in Turkey’s backyard.
The Turkish-Saudi ideological and geopolitical clash will be particularly impactful in Iraq as Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s government mends ties with the Sunni Arab world and tries to execute on its policies of inclusion. Such policies are part of a campaign to undo the disastrously sectarian policies of his predecessor, Nuri Al-Maliki. For Turkey under Erdogan’s presidency, a partitioned Iraq would enable Ankara to exert influence more conveniently over the Sunnis and an independent Kurdish region in the north of the country would be able to develop its own energy policy free of Baghdad supervision and influence. This would enable Turkey to add to its desired portfolio of energy transport routes. Moreover, for Turkey, a partitioned Iraq would deal a strategic blow to Iranian ability to project power in politically Shia-led countries and exert influence in Syria and the greater Levant.
But for the Saudis, a partitioned Iraq would not bode well, as it would create a Shia state (southern Iraq) in Saudi’s backyard with no access to Iraqi Sunni heartland. This would leave the Sunni part of Iraq to Turkish influence. The continuation of ISIS rule in parts of Iraq and Syria, from the Saudi perspective, could turn into a launch pad against the Saudi monarchy. The ideological differences between Saudi Arabia and Turkey will undermine the U.S-led anti-ISIS coalition, weakening future efforts for a post-Assad Syria.