The last months of 2018 have been filled with news of members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) looking to gradually normalise their relations with a Bashar al-Assad led Syria. Although countries like Saudi Arabia and its former partner Qatar invested millions into efforts aimed at regime change in Damascus, now that it is clear that such efforts have failed, Riyadh is pivoting its position vis-a-vis Damascus for a variety of self-interested reasons.
First of all, there is the pragmatic acknowledgement in the GCC that because it is highly likely that Bashar al-Assad will retain power even after new elections under a revised constitution in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, restoring relations between the de-facto GCC dominated Arab League and ousted member Syria will happen sooner rather than later. Based on reports that Saudi Arabia’s close UAE partner is looking to reopen its currently shuttered Embassy in Damascus, it can be extrapolated that Riyadh is using the UAE as a kind of barometer to test the rapidly shifting political landscape in the Levant.
Secondly, while the reality that Bashar al-Assad will remain in power is a pragmatic wake-up call to those in the GCC who once invested in his ouster, this alone would not by itself indicate any short or even medium term plans to bring Damascus back into the wider Arab League fold. To understand why some in Riyadh will be looking at normalising relations with Syria sooner rather than later, one must understand how Saudi Arabia’s major regional gambles have all failed while Turkey’s soft power in the wider Sunni Muslim world is stronger than at any time since the late Ottoman period.
In Syria, Riyadh gambled on successful pro-Riyadh regime change and lost. In Yemen, Riyadh gambled on a swift military victory over Houthi rebels and instead got an embarrassing stalemate against a group of Yemenis whose armaments are utterly inferior compared to Riyadh’s ultra-modern American and European equipment. Finally, the fall out from the Saudi orchestrated murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi made it clear that when it comes to dominating the wider regional narrative on issues ranging from Palestine to who best represents the interests of the so-called “Sunni street”, Turkey has outclassed Riyadh at almost every turn.
Because of this, while for decades Saudi Arabia aligned itself with politically-religious forces that sought to undermine secular Arab Nationalist governments including the Ba’athist one in Damascus, today, different priorities are at play. Because Turkey has come to speak for many in the politically-religious Sunni community in the Arab world and beyond, while Iran is fulfilling a similar role among Arab Shi’a Muslims in places like southern Iraq, parts of Syria and parts of Lebanon, Riyadh has been largely shut out of the soft power race for influence in the Arab world while two non-Arab powers continue to see their prestige elevated in the minds of their coreligionists and political well-wishers.
As a result, Riyadh finds itself increasingly unable to sell its own version of Wahhabi religious-politics outside of its own borders and at the same time, as Saudi backed groups for years slandered all Shi’a Muslim Arabs as “Persians”, Saudi Arabia has alienated this minority group in the wider Arab world. Therefore, if Saudi Arabia seeks to recast itself as a soft power leader among fellow Arabs, it is an awkward brand of Arab Nationalism/Pan-Arabism that Saudi Arabia will gradually invoke as a means of trying to lessen Turkish influence among Sunni Muslim Arabs while using a similar method to try and lessen Iranian influence over Shi’a Muslim Arabs.
At an ideological level, few will trust a Wahhabi theocracy to become a torch bearer of the secular progressive Arab Nationalist position. Yet at a more practical level, in attempting to draw Syria slowly back into the Arab League fold, Riyadh hopes to minimise the present reality wherein Bashar al-Assad’s supporters tend to have highly positive views of Iran while his domestic opponents tend to view Turkey as the main nation from which to draw inspiration.
Thus, while the genuine Arab nationalism of Nasser, Michel Aflaq and Gaddafi defined itself by what it could do for ordinary Arabs, the post-modern Saudi version of Arab Nationalism is more readily defined by what it opposes – the influence of two major non-Arab powers (Turkey and Iran) in the Arab world. While there are no guarantees that Riyadh’s plan will work among Syrians whose loyalties may be difficult to transform, Riyadh is nevertheless putting Iran and Turkey on notice regarding its plans to “re-Arabise” Arab issues that have largely become more important to intellectual and political circles in Tehran and Ankara than in Cairo or Riyadh.
Below is Eurasia Future’s full report on the importance of the Turkish-Iranian partnership from the summer of 2018:
In geopolitical relations, partnerships are formed as much on the basis of having shared goals as they are on the basis of facing shared challenges. While the modern histories of Iran and Turkey are highly divergent and while prior to the 20th century the Ottoman and Persian empires were great rivals, today, circumstance has drawn Ankara and Tehran closer than at any time prior to 1979.
The most immediate cause of the expanding partnership between Iran and Turkey is a desire on the part of both nations to expand their economic avenues within the wider Eurasian space. This is the case in respect of Turkey as the country looks to make inroads into markets that had been neglected in recent decades while for Iran, the desire to ‘look east and south’ has been motivated primarily by a post 1979 history of being largely cut off from western markets in spite of recent efforts of the European Union to preserve the status quo of the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) era.
Now though, both nations find themselves on the receiving end of measures that Turkey’s President Erdogan has described as “economic warfare” from the US. In the case of Iran, the country will soon feel the impact of new sanctions coming into force in line with Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA. At the same time, Washington has doubled its steel and aluminium tariffs against Turkey, something which is significant as Turkey is among the top ten steel importers to the US. This when combined with Washington’s sanctioning of the Turkish Justice Minister and Interior Minister as well as a Tweet from Donald Trump proclaiming that the current state of US-Turkey relations is poor, makes it clear that the recent economic measures taken against Turkey have been punitive rather than overtly strategic in nature.
The result of the aforementioned mechanisms of hybrid economic warfare in addition to speculation against both the Turkish Lira and Iranian Rial has meant that both nations have found that the US has caused a profound domestic inflationary spiral while working to cut of the international trading outlets of both nations. This is significant as Turkey is one of the few nations to run a trade deficit with the US, while Iran relies on many American partners including India as customers for oil and gas.
Against this background, both Turkey and Iran have drawn closer to each other, in spite of being on notably different sides during much of the Syrian conflict. Today, Turkey continues to restate its pledge to continue transacting business with Iran even when the full force of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic kick in. Although the US has threatened to level second party sanctions against all nations that continue to trade with Iran, Ankara has been resolute in defying these threats from Washington.
Now that Turkey has come under de-facto sanctions from the US in the form of the doubled steel and aluminium tariffs while furthermore, two major Turkish officials are on the receiving end of direct so-called Magnitsky style sanctions, Iran has come out in full support of Turkey. According to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif
Trump’s jubilation in inflicting economic hardship on its NATO ally Turkey is shameful. The U.S. has to rehabilitate its addiction to sanctions & bullying or entire world will unite — beyond verbal condemnations — to force it to.
We’ve stood with neighbours before, and will again now”.
Trump's jubilation in inflicting economic hardship on its NATO ally Turkey is shameful. The US has to rehabilitate its addiction to sanctions & bullying or entire world will unite—beyond verbal condemnations—to force it to. We’ve stood with neighbors before, and will again now.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) August 11, 2018
This comes at a time when the PKK terror group’s Iranian branch PJAK continues to heighten tensions in north-western Iran. As a result, Iran and Turkey are not only threatened by similar hybrid economic warfare from the US, but both countries are also now threatened by a terror group whose Syrian division YPG, the US is actively allied with in Syria.
Just as Iran and Pakistan share a common enemy in the form of terrorists operating in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the neighbouring Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, so too do Iran and Turkey share a same cross-border enemy on the other side of the country in the form of the radical Kurdish terror group PKK and its Iranian branch PJAK.
Iranian authorities have announced the murder of 10 Islamic Revolutionary Guards stationed in the Iran’s Marivan district near the Iraqi border. According to an official statement,
“The attack by the evil rebels and terrorists against a revolutionary border post and the explosion of a munitions depot caused the martyrdom of 10 fighters”.
This vicious act of terrorism ought to serve as a signal that it is necessary for Iran and Turkey to intensify their security partnership against a singular threat.
Given that Iran faces the same threat to its security and unity that Turkey faces, one would assume that it would behove Iran to publicly offer support for Turkey’s operations against the PKK near Iran’s border. Furthermore, as Iran is keen to retain its presence in Syria against the objections of both the United States and Russia, Iran coming out in opposition to the YPG/PKK’s presence in northern Syria could not only strengthen bonds between Tehran and Ankara but could convince many of those calling for Iran’s withdrawal from Syria to at least soften their tone. This would be the case because while Russia has clearly green-lighted Turkey’s anti-YPG/PKK Operation Olive Branch in northern Syria, now even the US has decided to work with rather than against Turkey in the form of cooperating on an anti-YPG/PKK roadmap for Manbij and other parts of Syria under YPG/PKK occupation – at least for the time being. Thus, if Iran were to align itself with a move conducted by Turkey which is obviously endorsed by Russia, while also being a move which is no longer opposed (at least on paper) by Turkey’s fellow NATO member the United States, it would be difficult to present a logical (key word) anti-Iran argument in the Syria context if Iran offered its support to bringing stability to northern Syria.
In many ways, Turkey is already Iran’s most valuable regional partner and recent indications are that the partnership is already being strengthened now that Turkey and Iran face similar economic and security challenges which are largely from the same sources.
The time therefore is right for both countries to strengthen their partnership even further, not least because the Syrian conflict which had been a source of disagreement between the two nations is now drawing to a close as Russia, Iran and Turkey all cooperate to foment a peaceful settlement to the conflict in the Astana format.
Turkey and Iran may have very different and at times confrontational histories, but the win-win mentality of the 21st century is the one thing that can help both neighbours develop a more positive relationship that will help create a more hopeful future for both the Iranian and Turkish peoples. The partnership has undoubtedly been strengthened by recent events, but more can yet be done to build further trust and cooperative mechanisms to ensure a long lasting positive partnership.