A Russian air force Mil Mi-28 military helicopter flies over Turkish and Russian military vehicles near the Syrian town of Darbasiyah near the Turkish border. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman

The decades old Saudi-Iranian rivalry may dominate headlines, but a Turkish-Emirati battle for the future of the region is increasingly reverberating from North Africa to the Middle East.

The rivalry between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates is rooted in a battle for dominance of global Muslim religious soft power.

The two states have fundamentally opposed attitudes to political Islam, with Ankara supporting Islamist actors and Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed seeking to extinguish such trends.

“Turkey and the UAE are engaged in a regional power struggle. They see it as a zero-sum game, in which there is no way for both sides to win. If one wins, the other one loses,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

The standoff has escalated military confrontations and complicated, if not disrupted, efforts to resolve conflicts in Libya and Syria. It bodes ill for those unwillingly sucked into it.

Shores of Tripoli

In recent days, forces of Libya’s Turkish-backed government have made gains against rebels led by renegade Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by the UAE.

From their base in Tripoli, the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) forced Haftar to abandon his ambitions to take the capital Tripoli and seized the Watiya air base.

Turkish drones, likely operated by Turkish personnel, also destroyed a Russian-made Pantsir air defense system operated by Haftar’s forces.

Turkish support for the GNA in Libya amounts to an effort to shape who controls the country as well as energy-rich waters in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In Syria, Ankara is determined to prevent Syrian Kurdish nationalist forces from establishing a permanent and meaningful presence on its borders, and to dominate jihadist forces.

Turkey is already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees – the single largest concentration of Syrians fleeing their war-torn and dilapidated homeland. It wants to stymie a potential new influx if Idlib falls to Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

In contrast to Libya, Turkey is discovering in Syria that the odds are stacked against it, even if its objectives in the country are more limited.

The Kurds, abandoned by the United States, have shifted towards cooperation with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in return for a shield against further Turkish advances along the border.

Idlib for $3bn

Turkish gains in Libya meanwhile threaten to fire up stagnant front lines in Syria.

UAE’s crown prince is said to have promised Syrian President Bashar al-Assad US$3 billion in April to break a ceasefire in Idlib, the last bastion of the opposition.

The status-quo in Idlib had thus far been preserved by a ceasefire agreement between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The Emirati crown prince had hoped to tie Turkey up in fighting in Syria, which would complicate Turkish military efforts in Libya.

Russia appears to have thwarted Prince Mohammed’s move for the time being, allowing Turkey to successfully focus on Libya in recent weeks. But the fate of Idlib remains in play.

Turkey so far has a winning hand in Libya. In Syria, however, few doubt that Turkey will struggle to secure its interests with Assad, backed not only by Russia and Iran but also the UAE, firmly in the saddle.

The UAE-Turkey scorecard is 1:1

Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at The S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.