Saudi Arabia-Turkey ‘Alliance’: Cooperating or vying for supremacy?

While Saudi Arabia and Turkey seek Assad’s exit from Syria, Ankara wants him to be replaced by Muslim Brotherhood’s Syria branch which will be totally unacceptable to Riyadh. The two also differ on the question of Kurds. Turkey wants to ‘Ottomanize’ Kurds while Saudi Arabia looks for ‘Arabizing’ them to use them against Ankara when it comes to the question of ‘leadership’ after the war  

Turkish media reports say an independent ‘pro-Kurdish’ channel was taken off-air on Saturday by Ankara for allegedly broadcasting propaganda for ‘militants’, or the PKK.

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This is yet another case indicating Turkey’s obsession with the outstanding Kurdish question — an obsession that its allies, especially Saudi Arabia, do not seem to share and which has put the ‘Sunni allies’ into a tricky situation vis-à-vis each other.

Let’s not forget that Turkey, for its own sake, does not exceedingly share Saudi Arabia’s obsession with Iran (read: Turkey’s ‘gold-for-gas’ policy vis-a-vis Iran). Hence, the question: how far can the alliance go in pursuing seemingly identical but actually divergent goals in Syria in specific, and the region in general?

One cannot ignore the Kurdish question when it comes to understanding the political underpinnings of Turkey’s involvement in the war with selective targeting of Kurds both inside and outside the country by its forces. However, this is a ‘solo fight’ that the Turkish Government decided to fight when it officially joined the US-led ‘anti-IS’ coalition.

Certainly, like Saudi Arabia and its allies, Turkey wants Assad’s exit from Syria. However, for Turkey, this exit is not only for weakening Iran’s position but also to replace Assad with Muslim Brotherhood’s Syria branch.

But the issue of the ouster of Brotherhood’s Government in Egypt continues to cast dark shadows over Saudi Arabia-Turkey alliance and it is likely to re-surface once the dust of the war settles down.

Needless to say, Turkey continues to support Brotherhood just as Saudi Arabia continues to oppose it. While Turkey sees Brotherhood as the vehicle for channelizing its version of Islam in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia finds this version unacceptable and politically challenging.

This factor only seemed to have pushed Saudi Arabia for effecting a regime-change in Egypt, which is, unlike Turkey, an Arab country. With Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt, Saudi Arabia would have lost an important ally to Turkey, which itself is long vying for regional supremacy.

While both countries do share the ‘Sunni version’ of Islam, they remarkably diverge when it comes to the ‘Arabian’ or ‘non-Arabian’ versions. That is to say, although Turkey has joined the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, it does not make Turkey an Arab country per se. Turkey continues to cling to its non-Arabian religious identity which is remarkably different from that of Saudi Arabia and other members of, for instance, the so-called ‘Arab coalition.’

Notwithstanding the historical and ideological basis of Turkey-Saudi Arabia rivalry, the question of Turkey’s participation in the coalition still needs some more reflection. For instance, given the extent of rivalry between both countries, one has to question Turkey’s strategic thinking behind allying with Saudi Arabia. The question, therefore, is: wouldn’t Turkey’s joining of hands with Saudi Arabia mean the former accepting the latter’s position as a regional superior power? Or does it?

While Turkey seemed to run the risk of compromising its own position in the race for regional supremacy when it joined hands with Saudi Arabia, the benefits it calculated to reap out of this alliance equally seemed to outweigh the potential losses and ultimately allow it to win back its erstwhile position as the biggest competitor for leadership of the ‘Muslim world.’

On the other hand, as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, it is utilising Turkey’s partnership for protecting its ground assets i.e., proxy groups in Syria. While Turkey does share Saudi Arabia’s concerns regarding protection of ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces, this is not the greatest political benefit Ankara is pursuing.

The greatest benefit in this behalf is certainly Turkey’s war against Kurds and the way Turkey has been using the war in Syria to its own advantage vis-à-vis Kurds. But Turkey cannot bomb Kurds to dust. Nor has it decided to go for this option, so far. What Turkey is certainly doing with regard to settling the Kurdish question once and for all is bombing them into subjugation to mould them into obedient, passive and tax-paying Turkish citizens, deprived of their separate identity and the right to exercise self-determination.

On the contrary, Saudi Arabia’s position vis-à-vis Kurds runs counter to Turkish ambition. While Turkey wants to ‘Ottomanize’ Kurds, Saudi Arabia looks for ‘Arabizing’ them to use them against Ankara when it comes to the question of ‘leadership’ after the war.

But are Kurds themselves willing to become pawns of Saudi Arabia or Turkey in the regional gambit? In December 2015, Massoud Barzani, KDP’s leader, who serves as the Kurdistan region’s president despite some internal opposition regarding the legality of his tenure, visited Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey. While both Saudi Arabia and Turkey received Barzani as a formal ‘head’ of a state, the very purpose of his visit was to see which of these ‘houses’ was willing enough to support an ‘independent Kurdistan.’

While neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey extended open support to the idea of an ‘independent Kurdistan’, an overwhelming majority of the Iraqi Kurds happen to be Sunni and suit both countries’ interests in terms of serving as a non-state ally. Hence, the attempts at ‘Ottomanizing’ and ‘Arabizing’ the Iraqi Kurds.

While these differences have not yet come to the surface fully, it cannot be gainsaid that this alliance stands to fall apart as soon as a possible resolution of the war in Syria comes in the hindsight, transforming their aligned interests into another power struggle for influence and control in Syria and the region. Only then will the hitherto under-surfaced questions assume significance in re-defining Turkey-Saudi Arabia alliance in a new regional context.

This process of fragmentation will only accelerate if the U.S and Russia agree on a course inimical to the regional states’ interests, leaving minimum room for the latter to maneuver. Were such a scenario to occur, relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be mostly affected by bilateral considerations and priorities rather than regional issues and larger coalition goals.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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