Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Turkey: Saudi Arabia or Iran?

The sharp rise in tensions between Tehran and Riyadh has thrown into relief Turkish regional policy and its missteps, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Was it another slip of the tongue from the quarters of the ruling Justice Development Party (JDP) and its founder? How could it have been when the statement had clearly been worded with extreme care?

With consummate diplomatic politesse, government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş told a press conference that Turkey could not support Saudi Arabia’s execution of a senior Shia cleric because Ankara opposes the death penalty, having abolished it with no regrets a decade and a half ago.

When politically motivated, such actions can only pour further fuel on sectarian conflicts and were certainly not conducive to peace in a region already aflame in civil strife and warfare, Kurtulmuş added.

The remarks by Kurtulmuş, a key JDP figure who also serves as deputy prime minister, seemed to favour Turkey’s Persian neighbour. They also appeared to be intended to placate protestors from Turkey’s Alevis, a Shia minority community, who had gathered in front of the Saudi Embassy in Ankara to protest the beheading of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in a speech before the JDP bloc Tuesday a week ago, appealed to Riyadh and Tehran to exercise calm and restraint and said that Turkey would offer any possible assistance to help resolve the crisis in their relationship. His words were part of attempts to stem further Sunni-Shia polarisation that could erupt in a proxy war that would serve the interests of forces “who do not wish well for Islam and the Muslim people,” as the Islamist-oriented and staunchly pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak put it.

However, the occupant of the luxurious presidential palace, the Aksaray, has no time for emotions. Anyway, he had just returned from an important visit to the kingdom in late December that bore fruit in the form of closer cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in all fields, such is the magnitude of his solicitude for the welfare of his people and their country.

Because of this, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hastened to repair his government’s shocking mistake. Taking advantage of one of his routine meetings with village mayors and muhtars, Erdogan said that death penalties are carried out in many countries, such as the US and Iran, so what was all the fuss about?

Also, the executions of 47 people, including the Shia cleric Ayatollah Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, was a matter that concerned Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs. Erdogan has thus emerged as more pro-Saudi in this crisis because, as people close to him observed, he is eager to promote closer relations with Riyadh as this is consistent with the public mood in Turkey.

The contradictory stances in Ankara cast into relief discrepancies between the Islamist trends that have asserted themselves in government and political life in Turkey. Meanwhile, many politicians and academics have stressed the need for Turkey to stay clear of what they call the Sunni-Shia conflict.

Ünal Çeviköz, director of the Policy Studies Centre in Ankara and Turkey’s ambassador to Baghdad from 2004-2007, emphasises the need for Turkey to remain impartial and to work to create solutions to prevent further aggravation of sectarian tendencies. He added that Ankara should not be a party to the deepening Sunni-Shia polarisation, and especially that between Riyadh and Tehran.

Rather, it should strive to resolve the crisis between these two regional powers. “It wasn’t right for Turkey to take part in the military coalition established in Riyadh [by the young crown prince] because if it loses the Shia-Sunni balance in its foreign policy and sides with a particular front, it will make itself vulnerable to angry reactions from the Shia and it will be within their firing range,” he said.

“In addition, it could risk losing the remnants of its influence in the Middle East which has already suffered severe losses as a result of inflaming the civil war in neighbouring Syria.”

Çeviköz’s colleague in the diplomatic service, former foreign minister Yaşar Yakış, agrees. Yakış served as his country’s ambassador to Riyadh from 1988 to 1992 and was a cofounder of the ruling JDP. Fearful that Tehran and Riyadh will escalate the crisis as a means to divert attention from internal problems, he stressed that Turkey should not become a party to the problem in any way.

On the contrary, he said, Ankara should act as intermediary and take pains to demonstrate to both sides that it is neutral. By all means, Turkey should avoid any steps that might cause it to lose the support of either of these two countries.

Ismail Yasa writes that were it not for Iran’s “dirty” role in supporting the Syrian regime and the crimes of that regime, the Turkish people would have been more sympathetic with Iran. However, the majority of Turks today condemn the Iranian reaction and hold that the Iranian regime, which has executed dozens of ulema and clerics, should also be condemned for carrying out politically motivated executions.

At the same time, Yasa said that the Turkish people believe that their country should stay out of the Saudi-Iranian crisis and remain impartial.

So what now? This is the very crux of Turkey’s anxieties. Saudi Arabia and Iran are key players on antithetical sides with regard to the major crises in the region, from the Syrian crisis that has just finished its fifth year to the crises in Lebanon and Hizbullah, in Iraq and in Yemen.

In addition, the Iranian Islamic Republic recently signed a nuclear accord with the Western camp that had used intense pressure to restrain Tehran and the influence of its mullahs and revolutionary guard.

The sudden turn of events two weeks ago, however, has ushered in a new and intensely complicated phase, especially given the dynamics in the region, pouring oil onto the fires and, as retired ambassador Oluc Ülker warns, threatening to drive sectarian and ethnic tensions and strife to extremely dangerous proportions.

In short, even if there is no direct armed conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region is perched on the rim of a volcano, the sparks of which could easily fly in Anatolia’s direction, igniting sectarian tensions there. It is little wonder, therefore, that some officials in Ankara urged Tehran and Riyadh to cool things down, as flames in Anatolia, as elsewhere, hardly need more fanning.

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