Turkey appears to be the big winner in Middle East geopolitics - Foreign Policy

Turkey appears to be the big winner in the Middle East, capitalising on its realignment with Russia and Iran to improve its image in the Muslim world as a leading nation willing to stand up to Saudi Arabia, political scientists Colin P. Clarke and Ariane M. Tabatabai wrote in Foreign Policy on Wednesday. 

The killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 has intensified shifting realignments in the region, Clarke and Tabatabai said. The most significant result of the shifting tectonic plates in the Middle East has been Turkey’s drift away from the United States towards Iran and Russia, they said. 

Ankara’s emerging alignment with Tehran and Moscow has several reasons, according to the authors, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s more anti-Western policies since 2014, the year he was first elected president. 

Erdoğan’s ambitions to increase Turkey’s influence in the region and to lead the Muslim world, also make Saudi Arabia “less of an ally and more of a competitor.”

Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have soured after Egypt’s president, Mohamad Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted by a military coup in 2013, Turkey supported Morsi, while Saudi Arabia backed the Egypt military.

In 2017, when a coalition of the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar, Ankara backed Doha, sending dairy and other food products to Qatar to undermine the blockade, as well as announcing the deployment of more Turkish troops in the country.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia's perspectives and interests in the civil war in Syria have also diverged, as the complex conflict has drawn Turkey closer to Russia and its ally Iran, while the United States and Saudi Arabia have remained united.

“For Turkey, the Iran-Russia nexus now seems to be a better fit than NATO. Ankara is preoccupied with stabilising Syria, even if this means that President Bashar al-Assad remains in power,” Clarke and Tabatabai said. 

In Syria, Turkey sees the advancement of Kurdish forces as a greater threat to its national security compared to the Islamic State (ISIS), while the same Kurdish forces form the backbone of a US-backed campaign against the ISIS in northeast Syria. 

“For both Iran and Turkey, the dismemberment of Syria and a Kurdish split from the country could lead to a slippery slope emboldening their Kurdish populations and creating a threat to their territorial integrity and national unity,” Clarke and Tabatabai said.

“In the morass of Middle East geopolitics, Turkey appears to be the big winner, capitalising on this realignment to improve its image in the Muslim world as a leading nation willing to stand up to Saudi Arabia—whose more closer relationship with Israel and leading role in the disastrous war in Yemen have tarnished its reputation,” Clarke and Tabatabai said.

“Turkey’s ostensible realignment will likely affect the new U.S. campaign in Syria and the viability of Washington’s Middle East policy as a whole,” they said. 

In response to this development, the United States should demonstrate that it has both the means and the political will to contribute to a stable Syria and rather than remaining focused on Assad’s removal, Washington should look at the bigger picture and secure U.S. interests in the region, Clarke and Tabatabai said.