Turkey and Gulf Countries Positions towards the Syrian Conflict
Since March 2011, the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, has shown a strong resilience towards the wide public protests that erupted all over the country. The regime’s repressive apparatus adopted harsh and bloody mechanisms against protestors, which timely extended and complicated the Syrian conflict. Now, in 2016, Syria became the playground of many international and regional players, among them figure states and non-state actors that have intervened within a complicated configuration of alliances with antagonist interests. From one side, the US alongside its European allies and Turkey opposed the Syrian regime and accused Al Assad of killing his own citizens and being responsible of the all complications that were added to the Syrian scene. On the other hand, stood another alliance encompassing the allies of Al Assad’s regime, Iran and Russia that endorsed Al Assad repression and resistance to the public call for his demise. In addition to these antagonist alliances, the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, known as “ISIS” or “DAESH”, the acronym of the Arabic name of the group, instigated more violence and atrocities. ISIS domination on many territories in Syria and Iraq, unique metamorphosis into an operating state and adoption of violence and religious radicalism to establish an Islamic state in the Middle East preluded to the stagnation of the Syrian conflict.
With the reluctance of the Obama administration to launch a military intervention in Syria or take a unilateral decision with regard to ISIS threat, more room was left for regional actors. Turkey, Iran and Gulf countries were and are still the major stakeholders in this conflict due to their geographical proximity to Syria and security interests at stake especially with the extention of the conflict duration and expansion in terms of the number of involved actors. Before shedding the light on the anti-Bashar regional alliance that includes Turkey and Gulf countries, some points need to be mentioned about Iran, the staunch ally for the Syrian regime. In light of their similar confessional affiliation, the Shiite and Alevite elites in both Iran and Syria, their anti-Sunnite nature is a common political background that united their strategic and security interests in the region. The confessional uniqueness of both elites in the Middle East paved the way for the crystallisation of a political solidarity involving a strong anti-American and anti-Israeli tone to emerge towards many regional issues like the Palestinian cause and the Syrian-Israeli conflict. This stance evolved into antagonistic positions towards American allies in the region like Gulf countries and recently Turkey.
Turkey, notably under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), initiated a political and economic rapprochment with the Syrian regime since the beginning of the 2000s. The Turkish policy towards Syria was portrayed as an example of a regional cooperation in the Middle East and a milestone in the amelioration of Turkish-Arab relations in many academic writings. Both countries used to have a history full of bilateral conflicts over the Tigris and Euphrates water repartion and the Hatay territory claimed by Syria. These bilateral conflicts involved many Arab countries and added bitterness to the Turkish-Arab relations until the arrival of the AKP to power that was positively perceived by many Arab countries, notably on the public level. The intensification of economic relations, commercial ties between bordering towns and the increase of political dialogue overcame bilateral conflicts between Syria and Turkey and led to an elitist rapprochment between Bashar and Erdogan. However, the eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011 led to a gradual deterioration in bilateral relations. Not only did Erdogan oppose Bashar dictatorship but also held him responsible of the resulting chaos in Syria that would empower Kurds and enable their autonomy which threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity. On the other hand, the open borders policy established between Syria and Turkey enabled millions of Syrian refugees to flee to Turkey and settle in many bordering cities. Borders permeability was reported to be the reason behind the state’s ailing security due to the penetration of members of radical groups who are responsible of various terrorist attacks in Turkey.
Although the Iranian factor was not the main reason for Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, it was a major threat for many Gulf countries that almost adopted a common stance against Bashar Al Assad, except for Qatar. At the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, many of the Gulf countries’ efforts were more focused on the Egyptian revolution that eliminated Mubarak, one of the most important American allies in the region. They tried to limit the effects’ of the Egyptian uprising on the domestic level especially with the protests that started to emerge in Bahrain and Yemen in the same year. Many Gulf countries, except for Qatar, perceive political Islam as a threat to the sheikhdoms’ rule due to the presence of Islamic opponents who criticize their regimes and ask for various political and social reforms. The eruption of the Egyptian uprising and the subsequent victory of the Muslim Brotherhood were linked to the Islamists’ calls for democratization and the protests that emerged in many Gulf countries. By 2013, the interruption of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, presidential term in Egypt by the army and the arrival of a military presidential candidate to power restoring a national order based on stability and security, the Syrian conflict took over the importance of the Egyptian uprising in the Gulf countries’ agenda. At that time, although the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood was eliminated, the emergence of ISIS as the descendent of Al Qaeda terrorist group in Syria and Iraq and the direct military involvement of Russia side by side to Iran in support of Al Assad alerted Gulf countries . In addition, the settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue with the US and the territorial and power expansion of ISIS, Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Qatar joined the Turkish-American dialogue within the NATO framework to take measures against ISIS and empower the Syrian opposition groups.