UAE, Saudi sense convergence with Syria

(Turkey & the Persian Gulf)

The reported plan by the United Arab Emirates to reopen its embassy in Damascus shortly leads to a startlingly new alignment on the map of the Middle East.

At the most obvious level, it signals the realization among the Gulf States that the brutal war to overthrow the Syrian government has ended. But the pragmatism is stunning. There isn’t even going to be any ‘cooling-off’ period!

What explains the urgency? Analysts may say it is to counter Iran’s influence. After all, the Saudis with UAE backing tried a similar approach in Iraq through the past year – to counter Iran’s multi-vectored influence in Iraq.

But the UAE cannot but be unaware of the exceptionally strong bonding between Damascus and Tehran. Syria may have uses for ‘green money’ to advance its reconstruction agenda but Iran’s backing has existential dimensions.

The western analysts tend to view the Iran factor as the leitmotif of Middle Eastern developments. However, in this cacophony over Iran, we are largely overlooking that simmering differences among the major Sunni states have also surged to the centre stage lately.

Through the past 2-3 year period, a Turkish-Qatari alignment has crystallized. For Qatar, Turkey’s support is invaluable for resisting the pressures on its strategic autonomy from the regimes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The establishment of a Turkish military base in Qatar underscores this new axis. Lately, Qatar has become a pillar of financial support for the Turkish economy.

(A burgeoning alliance: Qatari Emir visiting Turkey)

Neither Qatar nor Turkey is flustered by Iran’s rise. Neither is seeking Iran’s isolation, either. Washington recently ‘granted’ a waiver to Turkey to continue to buy oil from Iran, but Ankara shot back saying it opposed US sanctions anyway, calling them ‘imperialistic’.

For Turkey too, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the principal regional adversaries today. Turkey viewed with disquiet the UAE’s support of terrorist groups in Libya, Yemen and Syria. In next-door Syria, the Saudi and Emirati openly supported ISIS groups and al-Qaeda affiliates. Circles close to Turkey’s ruling elite have alleged that UAE is targeting Erdogan in a concerted way.

However, the ‘red line’ was crossed when the two Gulf oligarchies lent support to the failed coup in 2016 in Turkey to assassinate President Recep Erdogan. (After the coup failed, it took 16 hours for Riyadh to even issue a statement!) Turkey estimated that the UAE provided a staging post for the coup plotters.

As Turkey sees it, the UAE is implementing a western project to weaken it. Meanwhile, reports also appeared that the two Gulf oligarchies have been funding the Kurdish militant groups (who are the US’ allies in Syria.)

No doubt, it is a combustible mix. But what makes it really explosive is the perception in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh that Turkey and Qatar are patronizing the Muslim Brotherhood as a potent vehicle for the democratic transformation of the Muslim Middle East.

Both regimes (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) regard the Brotherhood as existential threat. Their visceral hatred of Brothers is such that they bankrolled the coup d’état against elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 in a multi-billion dollar project.

Enter Syria. Given the above backdrop, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are inclined to sense a convergence with the Syrian regime on pushing back at Erdogan’s perceived aspirations of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ in general and his support of the Brotherhood as a vehicle of change in particular.

A tantalizing question will be: Where does the US stand apropos the Brotherhood? The Barack Obama administration with a sense of history saw in the Brotherhood much potential to finesse the Arab Spring toward establishment of ‘Islamic democracy’ in the Middle East. The US had dealings with the Brotherhood in Egypt based on estimation that it could do business with them and even influence them to democratize the Muslim Middle East. Of course, the premature end to the transition in Egypt in 2013 changed everything.

(The Muslim Brotherhood lobbying US Congress, May 2017)

Erdogan always hoped that the US (and the West as a whole) would appreciate that Turkey is uniquely placed to play the leadership role in the transition to a New Middle East. The Khashoggi affair has noticeably rekindled those hopes. (Interestingly, the spokesmen of the US intelligence establishment who have been very vocal about the Kahshoggi affair have also suddenly mellowed toward Erdogan.)

Now, this subtle shift on the part of the ‘Deep State’ in America toward Erdogan couldn’t have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It has probably prompts them to open a line to Damascus as early as possible.

How this delicate tango will play out remains to be seen, since there are far too many variables. With the US midterm elections over, President Trump may come under pressure to ‘do something’ on the Khashoggi affair.

Meanwhile, the Saudi and Emirati presence in Syria will be a matter of concern for Turkey in the ‘post-truth’ politics after Khashoggi’s murder.

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