Turkey was lauded for abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and embracing modern Islamic democracy. Though it has rebranded itself with a democratic model of Islam, it continues to silence its dissent like its authoritarian monarchical allies (Saudi Arabia, UAE). This is evident from Erdogan’s government witch hunt launched against the journalists whom he accused of supporting an abortive coup against his government in 2016 and labelled them as terrorists. Ironically, the leader who has made Turkey a dungeon for journalists talks about delivering justice for Jamal Khashoggi, a staunch critic of Mohammad Bin Salman (New Europe, 2018). While Erdogan unravels details of Journalist’s murder, he stated that the Saudi Hitman Squad received the order to kill Jamal from highest levels without mentioning Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) name, thus breaking the promise of exposing naked truth(The Independent, 2018).
Khashoggi’s disappearance from Saudi consulate in Istanbul has been dominating the headlines since October 2 switching Riyadh’s panic mode on who thought it got away with the murder of Jamal. The speech and the timely “flawless” leak of crucial details related to the murder of the Journalist gave a blow to the senseless swinging narrative of Saudi Arabia who initially claimed that the journalist walked out of the consulate alive and later claimed that he died of a fist fight and a rogue operation. The audio recordings of the killing were handed over to Germany, USA and England and the CIA’s conclusion that MBS ordered the killing of Journalist further fanned the international outrage against Saudi Arabia (Washington times, 2018).
The Khashoggi episode is at the heart of the ideological war of the two Sunni powers. Saudi Arabia and Turkey share a relationship of 'Frenemies' as on one side they form a part of a united Sunni bloc aiming to curtail the influence of Iran in the region, and on the hand, they compete for power in the Sunni Muslim World. At the core of this Khashoggi’s saga lies the arch rivalry of Saudi Arabia which emphasizes that absolute monarchy should lead the Sunni world, and Islamic republic Turkey who abolished the Islamic caliphate in 1924 advocates the idea of blending Islam with liberal democracy. With this principle, a movement called the Muslim Brotherhood which originated in Egypt started gaining popularity during the Arab Spring in 2011. The rejection of absolute monarchy, which is at the core of the popular Islamist movement, was deemed subversive by Saudi Arabia. In 2013 when Turkey affiliated pro Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi rose to power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia fearing that this victory could energize the movement in its own country toppled the Morsi government and replaced it with its pawn Abdel Sisi (Aljazeera, 2018). Fast-forward to 2018, the death of the hard-core supporter of Muslim Brotherhood Jamal Khashoggi; Turkey seized this golden opportunity to tarnish the image of a social reformer who spends billions of dollars in his PR campaign to introduce cosmetic social reforms so that he could appease his western counterparts. The aggressive Turkish media campaign mounted relentless pressure on Saudi Arabia to agree to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and transformed his ideal image from a ‘reformer’ to a ‘represser’. This move by Erdogan will tighten the lips of MBS whenever he feels to freely curse Political Islam. The irony is that Erdogan is just endorsing the brand new Islam and simultaneously also silencing the media.
Turkey also milked this investigation to turn the conscience of Americans and Democrats against MBS who vow to put sanctions on Saudi over the killing of American resident journalist by banning the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Trump’s stance of solidarity with Saudi Arabia is denounced by the Republicans and has pushed the Democrats to investigate Trump’s financial ties with Saudi Arabia. (CNBC, 2018). Apart from that, this stance will give a legitimate stamp to any despotic regime in the world to shamelessly brazen its critics. By siding with MBS, many Americans are getting more critical of Trump’s foreign policy approach which will prove fatal for him in the upcoming elections.
Turkey has used this murder for political leverage as it is at odds with Saudi Arabia and the USA on many regional issues. The rapid response to Jamal’s murder was driven by Erdogan’s longstanding demand of extraditing Fetullah Gulen, sheltered by the USA, who led the coup attempt on Erdogan’s government (Aljazeera, 2018). Without directly pointing at MBS and announcing a joint investigation into the murder, Erdogan helped Trump’s dear ally MBS to save his face and come up with a “reasonable” response that it will seek the death penalty for the suspects of the murder. This will open the diplomatic doors thereby pushing Erdogan’s demand and also economically recover Turkey, as it was slapped with tariffs over the trial of American pastor Andrew Burson who was charged with terrorism.
Not only on ideological war, but both the power drunk countries have been at diplomatic loggerheads on various other regional issues.
At the core, the conflict is driven by the struggle to get the upper hand in the Kurdistan issue. Kurds are the Ethnic Minority in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, who have been persecuted for decades from Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on Kurdistan communities into Turkey’s ban of Kurdish language, are fighting for establishing an Independent Kurdistan. The creation of independent Kurdistan is fatal for Turkey as it will destabilize the Middle East and also threaten its territorial sovereignty. To add fuel to the fire, Riyadh covertly cemented the Kurdish Referendum calling to establish an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan due to its strong diplomatic ties (Gulf News, 2018). Ostensibly, this move could galvanize Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and also expand the influence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Another headache for Turkey is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) linked People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces, backed by the USA in Syria, who has played an active role in driving ISIS from northern Syria and have now taken over the control of the northern Syrian cities especially that of Afrin bordering Turkey. To combat this influence, Turkey has launched two cross-border operations to drive the YPG out of Afrin and to stop them from advancing towards Turkish border in the west. On one hand Turkey’ is vigorously compelling the US to end its military partnership with the YPJ in Manbij, to counter the Kurdish political hegemony. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sent military troops to fight alongside YPJ to destroy the last remnants of ISIS (Middle East Monitor, 2018). The first ever Turkey- Saudi confrontation on Syrian soil has fractured the Saudi Turkey relationship. In the wake of Khashoggi’s episode, Ankara is trying to coax Riyadh into halting its cooperation with Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.
Polar opposite approach to Iran
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are well positioned with USA and Israel to contain the Iranian hegemony; despite this strong anti- Iran bloc, they share very different relationships with Iran. Unlike Turkey, Saudi views Iran as an existential threat to the Sunni world. Iran and Turkey are interdependent on each other. Iran exports oil and gas by building a pipeline via Turkey which is a connecting bridge to West and European markets. Though heavily dependent on foreign oil and gas supplies, Turkey’s strategic location (the Persian Gulf and Russia) has helped Turkey in establishing itself as a major oil and gas hub. This interdependence is the pillar for strategic cooperation which overrides their opposing posture on regional issues. They have also forged unity to contain the autonomy of their common enemy Kurds by crushing them in the Middle East (Middle East Eye, 2018). Turkey by siding with Iran and Russia in the Syrian civil war has driven a wedge within NATO. The latest deal brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib to prevent Assad’s military offensive on the last rebel-held stronghold will stall the refugee flow to Turkey as well as by sending its troop to shield Idlib will help them in advancing towards the Kurdish towns to keep the PKK linked YPG at bay (Reuters, 2018). On the other hand, Saudis are doing their best to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad by fuelling the extremists in the region.
Recently, Saudi denounced Turkey’s ties with Iran by calling it axis of evil. Turkey will never support Saudi in its anti- Iran rhetoric at the cost of its economic relations with Iran. Turkey is more than ready to get slapped with USA’S sanction as it continues to ‘disobey’ Trump’s order of halting the oil trade with Iran (Jerusalem Post, 2018). With Riyadh’s reputation at risk, it can by no means portray Iran as a threat. Saudi Arabia is now so engaged in re-framing the truth that it will get hardly any time to comment on Turkish-Iran ties. As Turkey dangles Khashoggi’s murder over Riyadh, it can extract economic concessions from Riyadh which will benefit Turkey and indirectly Iran as well.
Saudi Arabia is diplomatically drowned due to its involvement in the war of Yemen and an imposition of a blockade on Qatar. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and its monarch puppets Egypt, UAE and Bahrain imposed a land, air and sea blockade on landlocked Qatar accusing of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and being a major hub for terrorism. They are demanding that Qatar cut ties with Iran and shut down its media broadcaster Al Jazeera in return for easing the blockade. While Qatar was abandoned by its Sunni allies, Turkey came to its rescue by providing food aid and deploying more troops to its military base in Qatar (Al Jazeera, 2017). The closure of the Turkish base In Qatar was one of the demands to break the blockade. Under the pretext of Qatari crisis, Turkey is aiming to expand its military base through forward basing. Turkey might not overplay its hands amidst the crisis by widening the rift between Qatar and Saudi as it will subvert the Middle East. Instead in return for allowing the crowned Prince to save face over the Journalist’s murder, Ankara will pressure Riyadh to revitalize its ties with Qatar.
The murder of the journalist has created a ripple effect. Mounting international pressure forced Saudi Arabia to withdraw from the Yemen war and also lead to the failure of ambitious ‘Davos in Dessert’ conference where Uber, JP Morgan, Ford pulled out of the conference (CNN, 2018). This episode has served as a wrecking ball for MBS as the Saudi royal family quotes that it wants to see a change in the line of succession. MBS received more flak when Saudi Arabia firmly declared that it will come up with the retaliatory measures if it is held accountable for the journalist’s killing. These measures might include dropping oil production thereby propelling up the prices which will be fruitful for Iran or by cutting the accesses of Muslims from the Islam’s holiest sites thereby denying a considerable amount of Haj visas of Turkish Muslims.
There is a remote possibility that Erdogan will implicate the crowned prince for the murder as its economy will be at stake; 940 Saudi companies invested 6 billion in Turkey and also pumped the economy as the lira plunged against the dollar in 2018 ( Middle East Monitor, 2017). But Turkey has trapped its political prey Saudi Arabia with its net of skilful diplomacy that neither USA nor any of its European allies can save Saudi, leaving Turkey itself. For now, Turkey will defuse its aggressive media campaign against crowned prince when Saudi Arabia is ready to come to the negotiating table to discuss the conflicting issues of Kurdistan, Iran and Brotherhood.
For fining a bilateral solution to this crisis, MBS keeping its oversized ego aside requested Erdogan to meet at G20 summit in Argentina (Al Jazeera, 2018). To which the turkey’s cabinet replied – Let’s see. This highlights that Erdogan not only wants to use the murder for political leverage but for personal leverage by crashing Mohammed Bin Salman’s huge ego of being the ultimate leader of the Sunni World.
The murder of Jamal which sparked global outrage and amplified Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses ultimately overshadowed the similar misdeeds committed by Turkey as Turkey incidentally found itself at the centre stage of exposing the murder. Turkey was viewed as a soft power, but with Khashoggi’s episode, the tables might turn in Turkey’s favour that will now be perceived as a favourable ally over the Saudi Kingdom.
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Image Credit: The New Turkey
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