[Study]: The Saudi-Turkish alliance in the Syrian War and the conflict over gas pipelines construction
The Saudi –Turkish axis emerged during the Syrian war as one of the most effective elements in the Syrian conflict, the real motives behind this axis broad involvement remain a mystery. This paper seeks to provide a quick evaluation of the Saudi –Turkish axis position in light of the recent regional and international developments in terms of the Military combat in Syria, especially With Russia joining the battlefront, the landslide victory of the Justice and Development Party in the Turkish Parliamentary election, thus restoring its legislative privileges which qualifies it to form the government alone, in addition to the repercussions of the Paris attacks.
It proceed afterwards to examine the historical background of the Saudi- Turkish relations and how they evolved after the Justice and Development party came to power in Turkey. Giving a representation of the leap achieved through the economic cooperation between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Golf countries. Finally the main point of this paper, the Saudi-Turkish axis position regarding the Syrian war, gas and projects competing over the construction of pipelines passing it through the Syrian territories role in drawing the map of military alliances between the fighting camps.
The Saudi –Turkish alliance emerged during the Syrian war as one of the most active sides. The size of the role played by this alliance in the conflict escalated to the point where it become the actual leader and the main concerned in toppling the Syrian regime project, narrowing the presence of other elements in this alliance including the Syrian political opposition itself.
During the last few weeks the Saudi-Turkish axis and those who joined their side faced a series of challenges that requires a pause for evaluating the path they took throughout this crisis.
With the Syrian war entering its fourth year, Russia officially announced that its forces will join those of the Syrian regime in the combat operation, thus adding a significant weight in favor of the Syrian regime and its allies in the military power balance, which was shown from day one through the amount of losses caused by the Russian bombardments of sites and targets belonging to the Syrian opposition (the Syrian opposition’s sites and targets), thus prompting concerns among all the parties opposing to Presidents Assad staying in power regarding the future of the armed confrontation outcomes, especially in light of the increase of reports on territorial victories achieved by the regime supporting coalition.
The announcement of the Russian intervention was shortly followed by the Justice and Development large victory in the Turkish election’s runoff which gave the party back the legislative privilege it preserved since 2002 and lost temporarily after June’s election, allowing it to form the government alone. While the Latter electoral victory dispelled the anxiety cloud prevailing over Ankara and other allied capitals in between the two voting rounds regarding the future of common political projects, however it also came in a time when there are signs of a possible crisis about to hit the Justice and Development party’s government caused by the expected economic problems following the political turmoil in the home front and the complications of the escalated tension between Turkey and some international parties in light of the Syrian crisis, particularly Russia and Iran , Turkey’s main gas importers, and the fear of the repercussions of the rift between the Turkish government and the Kurdish element of the Turkish state, especially in the light of the trouble seen in the southern areas affected the most by the war in Syria. In addition to the above, the simultaneous attacks that took place in the French capital Paris reopened many difficult issues closely related to the Syrian crisis, starting with the Syrian refugees that most of whom reached Europe through its southern gates, Turkey, and all the way to the most serious issue regarding “ISIS” and similar Jihadi groups which has grown and flourished in the Syrian war’s putrid swamp.
As for Saudi Arabia, which has witnessed many grave events this year which implications are still following, it have not succeed yet in containing those of the soft coup that has followed the death of king Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and the transfer of reins of power to his brother Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, moreover it failed in the most difficult test it put itself through in Yemen where the adverse party succeeded to draw Saudi Arabia into a maze of political and military attrition none of which foreseen endings seem reassuring.
Not to mention that the progress that has occurred in Iran’s nuclear negotiations where international parties reached a formulation for the preliminary agreement sponsored by US President Barack Obama personally, which was a strong blow to the efforts made by Saudi Arabia to prevent the achievement of a satisfactory agreement.
The most pressing issue facing the Kingdom is the delicate situation of the economy resulting from the economic maneuver to reduce oil prices in the aim of tightening its grip over oil international market ,and undermining other sources and, and alternative industries which had begun to rise throughout the past few years and also, according to some observers, reducing the efficacy and surpluses that had been achieved by its rivals in the international scene under the previous prices, especially Iran and Russia which occupy an advanced position in the list of the petroleum exporting countries.
The historical context of Turkish-Saudi relations:
The relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia were cold and estranged ever since Saudi Arabia declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire more than eighty years ago. In general, both countries kept a low level of communication.
Up until the end of the twentieth century, only one visit had been recorded for a Saudi King to the Turkish state, that is the visit of King Faysal in 1966 which only lasted few hours during the activities of an international conference that took place in Turkey, although the relationship witnessed small and intermittent periods of closeness which didn’t last that long back then due to changes that occurred in the Turkish scene which was unstable at the time, as during the prime minister Turgut Özal term in the eighties, when the latter tried to bridge the gap between Turkey and Central Asia’s countries, and following the second Gulf War in 1991 when both countries were parts of the international coalition to liberate Kuwait, and finally during the year when Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey’s prime minister in the mid-nineties and whose departure following 1997 coup targeting him and his government ended the closeness in the relations between the two countries and coldness prevailed again.
Upon its arrival to power in Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party launched a new strategy regarding the relations with its Arab and Muslim neighboring. The new Turkish leaders announced their intentions to open the doors wide for good relations with this neighboring, which, as they described, constitutes the natural and historical depth of the Turkish state, and that they will start the process for maximum political, economic, and cultural relations; and to further assure their neighbors and dismiss the concerns raised by some skeptics that Turkey’s southern change of winds veils a hidden nostalgia for the bygone glories of the Ottoman empire, the Turkish foreign policy raised a new slogan ” Zero problems with neighbors”.
Saudi Arabia expressed its warm welcomes to the Turkish change of foreign policies with a closeness in positions regarding the regional issues and a progress in different cooperation areas, up to the 2006’s visit of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to Turkey which was the first of its kind, accompanied by a large delegation that included representatives of various military, intelligence and economic sectors.
This visit set the cornerstone of a strategic partnership between both countries in many areas, which also encouraged other Arab and Gulf countries (to follow the example of Saudi Arabia) to do the same, such as UAE and Qatar. It is enough to track the growth in the balance of Trade between Turkey and the Arab countries in this period to remark the size of the leap in the bilateral ties: While Turkey’s export in 2003 did not exceed 5 billion dollars, the figure doubled 5 times by the year 2008, in addition to an increase of 7 billion dollars in Turkey’s import over the same period.
As for Saudi Arabia, the trade volume with Turkey was 1230 million dollars in 2001 before achieving a quantum leap as it reached 5524 million dollar in 2008, however it showed a remarkable decline in the following year as a natural consequence of the financial crisis that have struck the global economy )the global financial crisis). In addition to Saudi Arabia, UAE emerged as an important trade partner for Turkey, and precisely for the role its ports played as a second base exporting Turkish product to East Asian counties, which made UAE then the first importer of Turkish exports worldwide.
The Arab Spring and the Syrian War:
With the beginning of the Arab spring, and regimes starting to loose their grip over several countries of the region, there has been a qualitative change in the Turkish foreign policies strategy which slogan was “Zero Problems” with neighbors and which refrained from interfering in their internal affairs, as it took the initiative of declaring its support to these revolutions and siding completely with the forces of political change and especially the Islamic forces. And while the Turkish endorsement of the Arab uprisings was limited to political and media support, in the Syrian case it took a completely different path.
In addition to the high speed in which its position from the Syrian regime escalated from condemning its behavior in the beginning of the crisis, all the way to calling for overthrowing it and demanding the international community to work on achieving that goal, from the very beginning Turkey engaged in the efforts to overthrow President Assad and his regime by providing media and political platforms to the Syrian opposition, sponsoring their political and diplomatic activities, and opening their land for the Syrian rebels as a safe haven from the regime’s oppression.
It was not long before Turkey’s most critical role in the crisis began to unfold, mainly training and arming Syrian rebel groups and facilitating the entry of foreign fighters to Syria.
Saudi Arabia, which did not lack the enthusiasm to overthrow the Syrian regime in the fist place, rushed to coordinate its positions and policies with all the parties concerned in what is happening in Syria, contributing in the foundation of an alliance opposing to the Syrian regime and its allies, where the Turkish-Saudi duo formed the cornerstone.
And while Turkey persevered through the crisis on emphasizing that its position supporting changes in Syria stems from its attachment to Syrian people’s right to freedom and establishing a democratic ruling, Saudi Arabia however did not hesitate in showing the sectarian factor in its endorsement, calling for its outright disagreement with Iran and its allies in the region.
Through the Syrian raging confrontation, the insistence of the Saudi-Turkish axis to remove the Syrian regime seemed abundantly clear. Perhaps the ferocity which characterized the behavior of this axis when dealing with the Syrian war, along with the continuous indicators and evidences of the size of its intelligence and military involvement in the conflict, sparkled early skeptical questions regarding the real motives behind this alliance’s level of involvement in the war.
A lot has been said about Saudi’s top priority being breaking Iranian influence in the region running from the Tibetan Plateau all the way to the Mediterranean coast in Syria and Lebanon by establishing a breakthrough resulting from overthrowing President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, then a dismantling of Iranian influence in Lebanon, represented by Hezbollah, and an erosion of the Iranian hegemony in Iraq will surely follow, thus curbing the Iranian expansion toward the West.
While this scenario may hold a significant degree of logic, however many parties expressed its preservation and concerns due to the uncertainty that holds the future of the region under this scenario, as the state of vacuum already prevailing added to the absence of any alternative forces ready to rule the country in case of Assad’s departure.
As for Turkey, there has been no frank disclosure about the perceptions behind Turkish strategy in approaching the Syrian War. In fact, Turkey avoided giving sectarian reasons behind its regional policies, and expressed its commitment to normal relations with Iran, and avoiding the political targeting of its alliance among other parties in the Iranian angle.
When examining the considerations governing the Turkish-Iranian bilateral relations, the sensibility of the factors controlling their relationship becomes clear. Besides the border overlapping and the importance of both countries in the regional Geopolitical map, both sides are key players in the region’s hot Kurdish issue, and are concerned in containing the Kurdish elements interactions in their border areas and the Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq.
However the immediate factor, which is just as important, is the high economic interdependency between the two states, as Turkey relies on Iran to provide more than half its crude oil needs, making it one of the top Iranian oil importers, and on Russia, Iraq and Kazakhstan to provide the rest. As for Natural gas, it is not any different since the Russian Gas form 60% of Turkey’s Gas import, while Iran provide it with fifth of its Markets’ needs, leaving and to a lesser extent Algeria, Azerbaijan and Nigeria to provide the rest.
The previous arguments involve two main facts:
First, Turkey the country member of the NATO and the political and intelligence backbone for western policies, gets its energy resources from countries that does not belong to the same international political partisanship, which binds its hand in its international relations with complicated balances, and prevents Turkey from moving ahead with its political ambitions to have influence over the whole region.
The second fact is related to the marginal market share that Gulf Oil and Gas have in the Turkish market, despite Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s continued effort to increase their shares, however political and geographic obstacles and the consequent difficulties in transportation and distribution limited the possibilities to achieve the desired objective. Especially since Turkey does not hide its desire to diversify its energy resources, whether it is natural gas, as Turkey Keep complaining about Russian continuous use of this card at all frictions with the West, or oil which Turks aspire to diversity its resources, even if the price the Iranian charge suits them.
The conflict over gas pipelines construction:
In 2009, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia finished the mainline of an agreement for building a pipeline to carry Qatari gas through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, all the way to Turkey, with another proposal to connect it with another gas pipe (arriving) from Azerbaijan, Known as “NAPACO”, and then transfer the gas to the European countries.
The ambitious project, in addition to its high expected profitability for all partner parties, has a strategic and international importance that will bring qualitative changes to the map of international power balance, especially in Europe.
Turkey through this project is aiming to enhance its strategic importance by retaining the keys of the natural gas gates to Europe. An importance that will apply to the countries through which territories the pipeline of 2500 km long passes, especially Qatar, the exporter, and Saudi Arabia, the sponsor.
At the international level, Europe is looking impatiently for the moment it will be liberated from its forced dependency to Russian gas, thus the constraints imposed by this dependency on its political reaction in various issues, and to diversify its energy sources; as Russia, Europe’s natural gas main exporter was able due to its intelligent use of the gas card to limit any transgression in the European positions it deems to go against its vital interest.
the United States is also concerned in the European escape from the clutches of its natural energy sources dependency to Russia; especially that the United States is also interested in encircling the growing Russian influence, especially when it comes to the alliances Russia is making with rival international poles, such as China and Iran.
This project faced an obstacle when Syria refused to participate in it and allow the pipeline to pass through its territories claiming that this project imposes a threat to its ally Russia.
On the other hand, Syria signed in 2011 an alternative contract to construct a pipeline reaching the Iranian gas field and pass through Iraqi and Syrian territory, with a proposal the pipeline reaches Lebanon and then the Mediterranean Sea, and after these countries take their needs, it will reach Europe through the Syrian shores.
The timetable for the implementation of this 5600 km pipeline project was set between 2014 and 2016; however, but it has stopped due to the military operations taking place in Syria.
The Syrian decline of the Turkish-Gulf gas project and its engagement in the competing Iranian project was a critical turning point in the Syrian regime relationship with the Saudi-Turkish axis and the international parties that have shown enthusiasm about the pipeline project, where they all reached a definitive conclusion: the Syrian regime has to leave.
The Turkish- gulf alliance inaugurated a backup and support network for the armed groups opposing the Assad ruling, it included even the most radical and controversial groups. Overflowing evidence started to show, to the point where it cannot be overruled, regarding the responsibility of the Turkish- Gulf alliance in facilitating the entry of volunteers from different nationalities through the Turkish borders to join these groups. It also insured the access to weapons through the Turkish and other territories, and played the mediator and financier of the armament deals from the black market, aside from the Turkish and Saudi explicit fostering of other groups such as ” The Army of Conquest”, “Turkmen Front”, “Aharar El-Sham”, and some factions of the “Free Army” and other formations referred to as “moderate” and should be under international support.
On the other side, the allies of the Syrian regime came to his support by engaging directly and gradually in the combat operations. At first, maintaining the Shiite Holly religious sites was given as a justification for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, However, soon after its operations expanded to cover all confrontation fields, armed Iraqi Shiite group joined them shortly after, then Iranian and Russian consultative military crews, until all parties finally announced their direct participation in all the fronts, thus becoming a full-fledged alliance fighting in technically and explicitly the Turkish-Gulf-Jihadist alliance and those on its side.
The irony seems obvious in the way each party of both axes position in the battlefield reflects its position in the two competing pipelines projects, which allows us to describe the war in Syria as “the pipeline conflict”.
At this point, it is still difficult to settle whose balance is going to swing in this war which chapters are still open to all possibilities and where no one can yet predict the outcomes; especially with the dramatic escalation in the events which final manifestation was the Russian military dramatic intervention followed by the Turkish army recent shooting down of a Russian aircraft and the Russian response to the incident by deploying the S400 air defense system and closing the Syrian airspace in face of hostile air traffic. These developments contributed in increasing the Polarization levels in both camps and moved the Syrian War away from the possibility of a political resolution through international consensus, and for the barrel of the guns to decide the winner and the loser of this war.
Turkish-Saudi relations in recent year have seen a remarkable growth that was sealed by the coalition in the Syrian war which development suggests more cooperation and coordination.
Until the military conflict in Syria settles on a final outcome, significant disparities threatening this alliance are less likely to appear. Besides, the economic cooperation between parties of this alliance is the solid guarantee of bilateral relations protection and promotion; especially since both parties are in the midst of the foundation of a long-term partnership related to the food security of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states by pumping huge financial investment in the Turkish agriculture and irrigation sector.
The thing that was welcomed by the Turkish side, and pushed it as an encouraging step for the gulf investments in this sector to change long term leases for agricultural lands, In addition to the continuous increase in the market share of Saudi Oil and Qatari Gas in the Turkish market, and the construction contracts won by Turkish companies to implement several large installations in Saudi Arabia, such as airports, road networks, and finally the significant growth in the balance of trades between the two countries, whether it is in the section related to oils exports or its imports of Turkish products and industrial equipment.
However, while the expectation for the Turkish-Saudi Arabia Honeymoon to last long before it faces what might seem like a threat to their good relations, some concerns some raises that a temporarily blur of mutual enemies and economic interests is what obscures an inevitable clash between the two countries on the leadership of the Sunni World in the Middle East. Especially that the Shiite-Sunni polarization hides a Sub-polarization within the Sunni camp, between The Wahabi movement, led by Saudi Arabia on one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood school which Turkey and Qatar are its most prominent poles. Both movements do not hide their ambitions to dominate the Sunni world. However, this chapter of conflict will remain closed until the Syrian War comes to an end, and the new realities get unfold after the battles’ dust settles.