What Is the Essence of The Saudi-Turkish Conflict?
The establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it is known by the world today, dates back to 1932 by Abdulaziz Al Saud. But what many do not know is that this kingdom is the third state of the Sauds; the first one (1747-1818) and the second (1818-1891). Both states were overthrown militarily by the Ottoman Turks, the first directly, and the second indirectly through the Turks' support of the Al Rashid, who were the rivals of Al-Saud.
The roots of what is now known as a conflict between two different trends within Sunni Islam (the Saudi-backed Wahhabi trend versus the -Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood trend) date back to the mid-18th century when the religious missionary of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab appeared in Diriyah (a historical Emirate in Saudi Arabia, considered the cradle of the kingdom). This missionary was used from the beginning, as an ideological cover by Muhammad bin Saud, the Emir of Diriyah and founder of the Saudi dynasty, for independence from Ottoman control.
This historical background can explain one of the many aspects of what is implied in the leaks of MBS's utterance in March 2018 (seven months before Khashoggi's crisis) when he described Turkey as one of the "triangle of evil", along with Iran and terrorist groups, but certainly this historical background is not enough to understand the essence of the current conflict between KSA and Turkey. We argue that understanding this conflict and offering an approach as much scientific as possible to its fate is crucial not only to the future of the Middle East but also to the future of the Eurasian project and consequently to the future of the world as a whole!
Hot Files and Fields
The mere attempt to enumerate the files and fields of the explicit or semi- explicit Saudi-Turkish conflict is sufficient to form a preliminary perception of the depth and seriousness of the ongoing conflict. On the surface of the phenomenon we can see the ideological justification (Wahhabism against Muslim Brotherhood) that extends to cover many areas of inter-conflict. As well as, we can see the case of Khashoggi's killing at his country's embassy in Turkey in early October 2018, whose interactions and statements by the two sides over the past months have been a measure of the tension between the two sides.
If we go a little deeper, we find a clear struggle in Syria, Iraq, Qatar, Palestine, Libya, and others... Despite the importance of each of these files, we will focus on the Syrian file because it has exceptional importance to understand the essence of the conflict between the two states, not only because of the key location of Syria geopolitically within the Middle East, but more importantly, Syria has become an arena where the international conflict condenses. This means that following up the Saudi and Turkish positions towards Syria allows a deeper understanding of the nature of the international alignment of both of them, and this alignment is, in our opinion, what determines to a large extent the essence of the current conflict between the two states.
In Syria, each of Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, has supported many Islamist opposition groups, at least some of which are extremist jihadists. However, these groups differed according to the sponsoring state. For many years these groups liquidated each other before Russia intervened directly to reduce the total area of control of these groups to the minimum. In the second half of 2018 it became clear that the control of the armed opposition was limited to the province of Idlib and some areas of the Syrian north-west, all of which are completely subject to Turkish influence (except for Al-Nusra Front, which has a special situation that we will talk about later).
Although Saudi influence within the Syrian military opposition has been fully liquidated, political representation of the opposition remains a conflict between the two states. The best expression of this conflict is that the Saudi capital, Riyadh, is the seat of the so-called Syrian Negotiation Commission, SNC (comprising three opposing platforms stipulated in UNSCR 2254: Riyadh, Moscow and Cairo), while the president of this commission and most of its members, live in Istanbul, Turkey. Moreover, according to a statement made by a former vice-president of the SNC, to the Saudi Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV, the president of the SNC and a large number of its members residing in Turkey, have got the Turkish citizenship.
In the north-east of Syria, the US presence remains a reality, despite US President Donald Trump's announcement that he intends to withdraw his troops from there in full and swiftly, a declaration he has reaffirmed many times after. In addition to the US presence, there are the US-backed SDF local forces, aka QSD, whose main core is formed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey considers this party a branch of PKK, the largest Kurdish party in Turkey, and classified by Turkey as a terrorist party and has been engaged in armed conflict with the Turkish state for more than three decades. Turkey therefore calls for ending the control of PYD, and has repeatedly threatened to launch a military operation toward the Syrian northeast to end PYD presence, even with the presence of US troops.
Before the US announcement of withdrawal from the northeast, Saudi officials visited the region, and then it was announced that Saudi Arabia would provide 100 million dollars to "promote stability in the region", which Turkey considered a direct provocation.
After the announcement of the withdrawal, and the entry of the various regional powers, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the stage of rearranging the cards in proportion to the new reality that will be established by the withdrawal, it appeared that the Saudi-Turkish engagement reached an unprecedented peak. This can be noticed in the rising of sharpness of Turkish statements during the recent weeks regarding the issue of Khashoggi; the rising of the Turkish military preparations on the Syrian borders; and the announcement of reaching full readiness to start the military operation. This can be seen in intensive Saudi activity in an attempt to reach understandings with Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and with the Syrian Kurdish National Council (the second Kurdish force on the Syrian arena), in addition to continuing and growing contacts with PYD, in parallel with the increasing talks about a Saudi deal with the Syrian government, so that Syria returns to the Arab League (after a freeze of membership for many years), and so that Saudi Arabia contributes to reconstruction, in exchange for a new Arab repositioning of Syria not only against Iran but also against Turkey, and in other words, against Astana track (which was launched in 2017 under the auspices of Russia, Turkey and Iran).
historicizing the nature of the Saudi-Turkish competition and conflict must take into account that the relations between the two sides have gone through a honeymoon that extended from 2006 to 2011, beginning with the visit of the former Saudi King Abdullah to Turkey after an interruption of 40 consecutive years. He also repeated the visit in 2007. On the Turkish side, during the period 2006-2011 Erdogan made four visits to Saudi Arabia.
The honeymoon referred to above, was only a temporary departure from the "normal state" of the relations between the two countries; relations based on continuous competition in the regional context; a competition charged with rivalries of the past.
With the beginning of the "Arab Spring", the honeymoon ended and the divergence began to increase day after day. The Turks supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in Tunisia. The Saudis looked at this as an unacceptable expansion of Turkish influence to areas whose loyalty was closer to Saudi Arabia than to the Turks. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates worked intensively to blow strikes to the positions of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others, and have succeeded in doing so to a large extent. Although the conflict continued to grow but it remained, until the end of 2015, under control within limits not very different from that which remained within during the last four decades of the twentieth century.
The control over the conflict was, in our conception, the result of the belonging of the two countries to one international axis, namely the US axis in its struggle with the Soviet axis. The two countries remained within the same axis with the fall of the Soviet Union and the dominance of unipolarity. But this issue began to change in a stormy way during the last three years.
With the emergence of the US decline on the international scene, Turkey has started a different path with increasing acceleration, and it has been assisted by the important industrial economic foundation it has achieved over successive decades, especially during the new millennium, as well as its unique position within the energy and transport lines of "the Belt and Road" and the Eurasian project as a whole. This allowed it to make a serious shift in its international positioning. This turnaround began several years before the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, but the failure of that particular attempt, which the Turks seem to be contented that the United States stood behind, not only the United States but also several regional countries, on top of which is the Saudi Arabia, which was delayed several hours, until It was clear that the attempt failed, before it announced its support for the Turkish government, and even gave a clearer signal by hosting the first accused of organizing the coup on the Saudi Arabia's most important satellite channel, Al Arabiya, shortly after the attempted coup. After the failed attempt, which is said that Moscow is the one who helped to abort, through the Russian intelligence discovering of the operation before it started, and already warning Erdogan, the Russian-Turkish rapprochement has become a reality through a series of trade and military agreements, recently crowned by the joint summit of the two presidents during which they opened the TurkStream pipeline.
A New Regional-International System
Prior to this, in the framework of the Syrian keystone, the "Astana track" was launched to reduce the military escalation on Syrian territory, which extended to the "Sochi meeting of the Syrian national dialogue" which laid the foundation for the establishment of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. All that is related to the Syrian crisis and its solution, became concentrated around the trio-Astana (Russia - Turkey - Iran), so that the US attempt to pull the center of gravity towards itself through the establishment of the so-called Small Group was unable to accomplish anything on the ground. (The group started with five countries that it is not a coincidence that Saudi Arabia was one of them, along with the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Jordan, and joined later by Germany and Egypt).
From the US, and generally Western, point of view, the influence and control within the region on its regional level has for decades expressed itself through a constellation of systems and alliances. Besides NATO, there is the GCC (which was created in 1980 as opposed to the Iranian Revolution), in addition to the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and other organizations. The reality is that these organizations, individually and collectively, are no longer able to influence the course of things within the region. They have rather become frozen structures that play almost no role at all.
In contrast to these systems, the Astana system, regional in terms of its direct function, but also international in terms of its impact, has become the most important and influential system within the region as a whole.
Can Saudi Arabia Adapt?
According to the fact that the international balance of power has changed, and the weight of the West in the Middle East has begun to decline rapidly, various governments and regimes, including those historically allied to the West, will be prompted to reconsider their positions. This is evident in the Turkish case, especially since the policy of US creative chaos is no longer limited to countries ruled by regimes that declare hostility to USA, but All countries in the region have become targeted; if the Turkish coup attempt succeeded, the likelihood of this country heading towards chaos could have been the highest probability.
In this sense, KSA itself knows that it may also be targeted by attempts to internal fragmentation. It is therefore understandable that a trend within the Saudi leadership has begun to seriously consider re-positioning on the international map, at least in order to balance the growing US blackmailing. But what makes the mission of turning the orientation in Saudi Arabia more difficult than in Turkey is the weakness of the economic base in the former, which is still largely dependent on oil, and has not took a course toward a real economic development, which means that it is an economy suffering from a high degree of dependency. However, what is certain is that the conflict over the major strategic directions will intensify over the next few years and will eventually be resolved, but until then the Saudi role will remain essentially hostile to the Astana system and severely hostile to Turkey.
What About Turkey Itself?
If Turkey has achieved a major turning point after the attempted coup, and it is still going, it does not mean at all that the internal conflict over the strategic direction and international positioning has been finalized... The US-hearted trend is still strong and deeply rooted within the various devices of the state, especially inside the military institution, and this explains the difficulty of moving forward in several files on top of them the Syrian file, and especially the file of Idlib and how to deal with Al-Nusra Front, the latter itself supported by a trend within Turkey, the same trend which the closest to the United States, and therefore the termination of Al-Nusra Front is passing through major difficulties.
Is There Any Way Out?
What is certain about the Saudi-Turkish conflict is that the old limits of control have disappeared with weakening of the US grip, and whatever new form this conflict will be settled on, it will necessarily be a completely new form, which poses a theoretical possibility that should not be neglected. The possibility of reaching a state of cooperation on the level of the entire region in accordance with a completely new system of international relations led by the major Eurasia parties (China, Russia and Europe) and with contribution by all its nations... this probability seems a kind of fiction? Yes, but it is science fiction!