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Is there room for a Saudi-Egypt-Turkey triangle?

January 24, 2014 at 2:13 am

It is clear that the Arab region is turbulent. It is also clear that the political situation is in a state of confusing fluidity; alliances have collapsed while others form and the balances within and between states are not yet stable. The US will not leave the Middle East, but its priorities are being reorganised. Iran, meanwhile, waits with apprehension and impulsiveness for its final nuclear agreement with the superpowers and aspires to stabilise its gains in Iraq and Syria.

These gains are temporary in unstable countries and have not yet become agreed-upon regional arrangements; can they become so? There are Arab regimes that have fallen while others are on the verge of falling, and anyone listening to some of the politicians nowadays would discover that even the region’s geo-political maps are likely to change as well.

Such a situation certainly imposes a change in the vision and in the goal, as well as a reconsideration of the old standards of political thinking and positioning; however, the Arabs do not seem to be doing any of this. At times like these, the importance of regional alliances and their reformation is multiplied, but the Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, do not seem to be taking this matter seriously; it doesn’t seem as if Riyadh and Cairo are working together on the process of rebuilding regional alliances.

What is even stranger than this is that they both seem to be watching this process from afar and, what’s more, doing so carelessly. The clearest indication of this is their position towards Turkey, one of the oldest and greatest countries in the region, as well as the most influential; Turkey is a member of the G20 and is located between Asia and Europe, and, more importantly, it is located politically between Israel and Iran on one side, and the Arab world on the other. Although Israel is the enemy and Iran isn’t, the latter is being hostile towards the Arab countries, especially in the Gulf. It is also one of the most omnipresent of non-Arab countries and a major contributor to the sectarian conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; it is using this as a base for its influence, which it aspires to spread throughout the region.

On the other hand, and this is the strange part, the Arab-Turkish relations that developed post-Arab Spring have become lukewarm with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as well as open hostility with Egypt. This is despite the presence of all elements and justifications for alliances between these countries, especially at this turbulent time. Meanwhile, we find that the signs of cooperation and the potential for an alliance between Turkey and Iran are growing, despite all the elements and justifications that suggest otherwise.

This has happened for reasons that vary from one state to another, but the most common reason for most Arab countries is Turkey’s position on the matter of the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems as though this group has turned into some kind of intellectual and political pariah across the Arab world, a destructive complex that needs to be disassembled in order to consider the justifications of the various positions taken towards the group, and the region’s best interests. The strange thing is that Turkey’s position, the position of the Justice and Development Party, regarding the Syrian Revolution; its support for the rebels and its determination to overthrow the Syrian regime, Iran’s most strategic ally, has not prevented the latter from extending the hand of rapprochement with Turkey, as if it were ignoring its hostility towards Tehran’s main ally. On the Arab side, the general position towards Turkey, which is sympathetic towards the Brotherhood and is against neither the coup in Egypt nor Saudi Arabia, has had the opposite effect and ties have been cut with Ankara.

This indicates the absence of the political dimension in decision-making in the Arab world during what is a critical period. It is worth noting in this context that Turkey and Iran have agreed to increase the volume of trade between the two to $30 billion next year. A council for strategic cooperation between them is also on the cards following Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif’s visit to Turkey last week.

Some may be surprised that the Syrian regime was the first to ruin its relationship with its northern neighbour, as it was evolving continuously even before the revolution; it seemed to be promising due to the keen aspirations of large joint commercial and industrial projects. A similar higher council for strategic cooperation was formed by Damascus and Ankara and 51 agreements, memorandums of understanding and work protocols were signed. One of these agreements included the cancellation of travel visas between the two countries, but the Syrian revolution turned everything upside down.

The reason behind this is that Turkey tried to persuade Bashar Al-Assad to contain the uprising against him, which began peacefully, but he rejected mediation on principle; his response to the Turks, as well as the Saudis, Qataris and others, was continued escalation by cracking down and killing protesters. Based on this, the relationship between the two sides began to deteriorate and it ended with Turkey severing all ties with the regime and adopting the Syrian opposition, as well as hosting Syrian refugees who fled to escape the army attacks on their towns and neighbourhoods.

The Syrian regime’s sacrifice of its relationship with Turkey so easily isn’t very surprising. The basis of this relationship was a partnership in ambitious economic and investment projects that requires political and economic openness on the Syrian regime’s part both internally and externally. However, the regime is unable to do so firstly because it is a politically-closed regime, secondly because it aims to establish a new governing lineage in the area based on the protection of the president’s own sect; and thirdly because it is associated with Iran in a closed partnership based on the principle of a “minorities alliance” in the region. As such, the regime considered the idea of mediation in light of a popular revolution as an unfriendly act, based on this principle, and considered its acceptance of mediation as an unacceptable concession that would weaken its position and threaten its security grip in the long run.

The Syrian leadership believed that Sunni-majority Turkey’s mediation, led by the ruling Justice and Development Party (a Sunni Islamic party), may impose political concessions on it due to the popular uprising by the majority Sunnis in Syria. The success of this mediation in this case would benefit Turkey politically in Syria and across the region. On the other hand, the regime would lose much of its sectarian presence in its policies on a local and regional level, and would make the concessions expected of it a weakening factor in the alliance that links it with Tehran. It would also weaken its security grip and, indeed, threaten its existence.

Even if the Syrian regime’s sacrifice of its relationship with Turkey is justified and understandable, it is difficult to explain how and why Egypt’s links with Turkey have gone the same way. Egypt did not accept Turkey’s description of what occurred in Egypt as a military coup, and although this is understandable, it is not a justification for the deterioration of the relationship, as most countries in the world consider what happened in Egypt to be a coup. If Egypt is really concerned with the world recognising what happened as a revolution, which is its right, then it should provide political and constitutional support for that view.

It is equally difficult to interpret the cold relationship between Riyadh and Ankara, and Riyadh’s lack of keenness to invest in the creation of a Saudi-Egypt-Turkey triangle; a triangle, which under the current circumstances represents a strategic need for the three states. They fit in with each other, at least economically, and coordination between the three within a regional triangle would restore some sort of balance in the Middle East after the fall of Iraq and Syria. In addition to this, it would form a barrier in the face of the politically-destructive Iranian role in the Arab world and would act as a starting point for stability in the midst of the present turbulent phase.

Why didn’t Riyadh and Cairo choose such a strategic option at a moment when they are both in dire need of it? Why can’t they overcome the Brotherhood complex by developing a political and intellectual alternative that not only goes beyond the movement, but also responds to the requirements of the current stage and their future needs?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.