By Iran Review
By Hassan Ahmadian*
When Turkish fighter jets targeted a Russian bomber plane over Syria, in addition to other signs, Turkey was showing its discontent with the new situation. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also share that discontent. During the past five years, they had spent their political and strategic assets in order to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar Assad, but to no avail. Egypt is also discontent with the existing situation in a different way. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had accepted to follow suit with Riyadh on Syria due to economic hardships that his country was facing, but it cannot tolerate the current coordination between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. He believes that Turkey is disturbing the security of Egypt and even the entire region. The Egyptian president also cannot forget that it was Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who first introduced “the group of four” slogan and is still insisting on it. In the meantime, there are such scared actors as the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the government of Jordan, who are trying to gain more strategic weight through regulation of their relations with main actors in the region. However, regional developments in the Middle East are currently pivoted around Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This activism naturally stands opposite to Iran, Syria, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Naturally, each of these actors also has its own specific motivations.
When a Turkey, which gave priority to “reducing problems with neighbors to zero,” was reduced to a Turkey, which has a claim to be the leader of the region and is trying to revive the glamour of the Ottoman Empire, it lost its position and prestige among regional countries. At first, when Morsi was chosen as Egypt’s president, Alnahda took charge of Tunisia and Bin Kiran rose to prominence in Morocco, the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood claiming leadership of regional countries created unpresented vanity among officials in Ankara. This vanity pushed them toward conflict with Bashar Assad, and when Morsi was toppled, toward conflict with the new government in Cairo. Turkish officials gained nothing through these conflicts, and on the contrary, found themselves faced with the threat of empowerment of Kurds all across their southern region. Ankara’s conflict with Cairo also served to increase animosity of Arabs toward Turkey. Now, after shooting down the Russian plane in Syria, the last strategic plan of Turkey, which was of course unacceptable or impractical from the viewpoint of other major actors in Syria crisis, has been rendered null and void: the plan to create a buffer zone between two towns of Jarabulus and A’zaz in north Syria. Turkey, however, is still going on with its moves and previous tactical mistakes, which have caused it suffer strategic costs, have not been enough to change its approach to Syria yet.
Saudi Arabia, which is now caught in Yemen, is trying to reduce its strategic costs elsewhere in the Middle East. Five years of financial, arms and ideological support for Syria’s armed opposition has not been able to topple Assad’s government and involvement of Russia in the Syria war will further raise the costs that are associated with this option. Under these conditions, Riyadh has been forced by its Western allies to sit down for negotiations with Iran. However, in order not to lag behind developments, it tries to take the initiative by bringing Syria’s opposition groups together, and while no list of terrorist groups mentioned in the Jordan response plan (within framework of the Vienna process) has not been produced yet, Riyadh has invited such extremist groups as Jaysh al-Islam to the confab. There is one major reason why Riyadh is not able to get rid of extremist groups: Riyadh has no practical substitute for them. Therefore, the war in Syria cannot be considered as a win-win game for Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, however, the feeling of being trapped has increased Riyadh’s vigilance. They know that they cannot end the war by totally overcoming their Yemeni enemy. For this reason, Saudi Arabia is trying to distract international attention from Yemen to Syria, on the one hand, while on the other hand, showing more readiness to take part in political negotiations over Yemen.
Qatar, which has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as its main strategy to play its regional role, is still continuing on the same path. For this reason, it feels close with Saudi Arabia. Of course, Qatar has already lost a large part of its bet and has suffered hefty losses for the other part. However, Doha is not worried about such costs. A country, which has withstood the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has been paying most of the cost of the Syrian war during the past five years, still sticks to the same policies. The important point is that instead of the pressure that former Saudi King Abdullah put on Doha, his successor, King Salman, is now cooperating with Qatar. Therefore, Qatar is also cooperating with Riyadh in the region, at least on a temporary basis. For Qatar, getting along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the region is tantamount to playing its regional role and this is apparently more delightful to officials in Doha than anything else.
The cooperation among the three aforesaid countries has reached its peak in the period after passing of the former Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. On the opposite, there is an axis opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which consists of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Of course, the resistance axis must be also mentioned as another side to these regional arrangements. Therefore, the existing conditions in the region, which have led to cooperation among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have divided the entire region into three sides or three axes. Every one of these axes pursues its own priorities. Of course, since the conflict between these currents, especially the first current, and Iran’s policies in the region is deep-rooted, the rise of their conflict with the emerging axis of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan is of high importance. The axis comprising Riyadh, Ankara and Doha pursues three priorities, which include toppling Assad, controlling Yemen and steering the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, and in its pursuit to materialize these three priorities, it is countering the other axes. The axis consisting of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, on the other hand, has made undermining the Muslim Brotherhood and fighting Daesh terrorism its top priorities. Naturally, there are overlaps between these two axes on some issues. For example, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have formed an alliance in the Yemen war. Of course, the two countries have started to drift away from each other in Yemen, but they are evidently locking horns when it comes to two other issues, that is, the future outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood and the future of the Syrian government.
The important point is that the axis consisting of Riyadh, Ankara and Doha mostly defines itself as opposed to Iran and its regional allies. For this reason, its conflict with the other axis, which includes Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Amman does not seem to be striking. However, involvement of Russia in regional crises, seriousness of Vienna process for the settlement of Syria crisis, and increasing pressures aimed at putting an end to the crisis in Yemen and resumption of Geneva talks, will all serve to pit the two aforesaid axes against each other more than before. Since the main parties to these axes have seen futility of unilateral solutions in recent years, any increase in the existing conflicts will push the region toward a new balance. The positive aspect of such a balance is that it will create equilibrium in the face of jockeying by the axis that comprises Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha; an axis which tries to justify its catastrophic strategic moves in the Middle East by hiding behind a sectarian discourse. Therefore, all countries that support peace and security in the Middle East must help establish this stabilizing balance.
* Hassan Ahmadian
Ph.D., Senior Researcher; IRI Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research (CSR)