ISTANBUL–Turkey and Saudi Arabia took another step forward this week in preparing a strategic alliance which, if successful, could play a key role in the future of the Middle East. Talks on the strategic partnership — first announced on a visit to Riyadh last December by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — dominated the first two days of a return visit to Ankara and Istanbul by King Salman.

Salman and Erdogan meeting in Ankara
Salman and Erdogan meeting in Ankara

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are fairly recent partners in the Middle East and bilateral relations until a decade ago were focused almost exclusively on trade and energy. But there was no mistaking the unusual importance both sides attached to King Salman’s visit — a fleet of 500 Mercedes was placed at the disposal of his delegation; he was swiftly awarded Turkey’s highest order of distinction, and most unusual of all President Erdoğan turned up in person at the airport to welcome his guest, instead of leaving the task to his foreign minister as protocol would usually require.

Details scant

Neither Turkey nor the Saudis are giving away many details of the form that they hope their strategic cooperation will take. (Apart from military cooperation it will also included economic and trade relations.)

The alliance – generally known as the Islamic Force Against Terrorism officially comprises 39 nations, all predominantly Sunni,  and will have its command centre in Riyadh. Turkey – with 410,000 men under arms and 185,000 reservists, all trained according to NATO standards and equipped with modern weaponry—looks likely to provide the operational backbone.

But so far the messages coming out of Ankara are NATO will remain Turkey’s main alliance and the pact with Saudi Arabia is not intended to supplant it.

Saudi planes detour Russians

Saudi jet fighters have been deployed in Turkish airbases since January and are said to have been used sorties against ISIL though little information is available. Jets apparently are unable to fly over Syrian airspace because of the hostilities between Turkey and Russia and instead travel from Diyarbakir airbase in Eastern Turkey to strike at ISIL targets in Iraq.

Speaking at the opening of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul, President Erdoğan appealed for greater solidarity and collaboration against terrorism among Muslim countries. This follows several months of similar calls by Saudi Arabia for joint action by Muslim countries against terrorism.

But it is no secret that if they were able, both countries would also like to do other things. Chief of these, if it was only possible, would be a military intervention against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Earlier this year there was short-lived speculation that there could be a Saudi-Turkish ground operation against Assad — something which would almost certainly have led to a swift military collision with Russia forces.

Though Turkey seems eager for closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t want this at the price of confrontation with Russia or Iran. Saudi Arabia for its part is probably unwilling to be drawn into Turkey’s confrontation with Kurds both in Syria and on its own territory — though given that President Erdoğan regards Kurdish militants as terrorists, and fighting terrorists is the main aim of the alliance, he may argue Kurds should be among its targets.

Turkey, Egypt at odds

Egypt's al-Sisi
Egypt’s al-Sisi

However, there are still regional differences to overcome, the most significant of these being the rift between Turkey and President al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt — a dispute which now goes back five years to Sisi’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, early in 2011. King Salman spent five days in Egypt before coming to Turkey. Saudi Arabia emerged from them with a clear diplomatic victory, gaining two islands and agreeing to build a bridge to Egypt over the Red Sea. It would like to see similar détente taking place between Cairo and Ankara.

While Mohammad Morsi is still in prison and officially still awaiting a death sentence, President Erdoğan will probably not be willing to normalize relations with Egypt fully. But there is something of a compromise in the air: Turkey agreed to allow the Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to attend the OIC summit in Istanbul. It seems unlikely that Turkey would be willing to make operational concessions to Egypt over the Islamic Force against Terrorism, not least because the two countries were long-standing regional rivals long before 2011 and are likely to remain so.

Ultimately for the Turks, the question is whether or not the “Islamic Army” can evolve into a credible and effective regional fighting force. If it does, it may well play a major part in Middle East politics  — and perhaps shoulder some burdens which the US no longer wants to carry there.

To give credibility to the alliance, Turkey and other countries have put out reports of large-scale joint exercises, said to be the largest ever carried out in the Middle East. But so far, actual details seem to be scarce.

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