America, Turkey and Saudi Arabia Are Pouring Fuel on the Fire in Syria

05/14/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016
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ISTANBUL -- Politically, the Republic of Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could not be less alike. Turkey was founded 90 years ago on the basis of modern, secular, republican values, while Saudi Arabia is one of the few remaining absolute monarchies in today's world. And yet, the two powers have found common cause on many issues in the Middle East: Yemen, Bahrain and above all, Syria. Turkey supports the Saudi-led military operations against Yemen's Houthi rebels; it has also turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia's heavy-handed suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain -- a Shiite-majority country ruled with an iron fist by its Sunni monarchy. (On a 2013 visit to Bahrain, then-Foreign Minister Davutoğlu described the tiny island nation as "a good example of sectarian harmony.")

Both Riyadh and Ankara support the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) in Syria, which comprises numerous insurgent groups including al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, the al-Nusra Front, which the U.S. and others have designated a terrorist organization. The Army of Conquest has stated that its aim is to overthrow al-Assad with the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Over the past few weeks, it has captured the strategic Idlib region on the border with Turkey.

TURKEY'S FAILED MIDDLE EAST POLICY

To make sense of this unlikely alliance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, let's travel back in time to 2011. Amidst the turmoil of the Arab Uprisings, Erdoğan was counting on the overthrow of the dictatorships of al-Assad, Qaddafi, Mubarak and others, fondly imagining that Muslim Brotherhood parties would then come to power across the Middle East. This was the "Islamic order" of which Erdoğan and his colleagues dreamed, an order which was to be led by Turkey. In an apparent homage to the Ottoman sultans' tradition of performing their prayers in a newly-conquered capital, Erdoğan declared that he would soon be praying in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. However, Erdoğan has been unable to make good on this promise.

Erdoğan's Syrian venture -- the most ambitious such undertaking in the entire 90-year history of the Turkish Republic -- has also proved to be the undoing of Turkey's foreign policy. Intent on overthrowing al-Assad from the very beginning, Erdoğan is one of those responsible for the devastation in Syria today, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States. A March 24, 2013 report in the New York Times stated that 120 cargo flights from Qatar and Saudi Arabia had carried military supplies to Turkey destined for the rebels in Syria. This weaponry was then delivered to the rebels in trucks alleged to belong to Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MİT). In January 2014, gendarmes in one of Turkey's border regions, acting on information from public prosecutors, tried to search some of the trucks, leading to a major political scandal for Erdoğan. A number of those who ordered the search, including four public prosecutors and one colonel, are now under arrest on charges of espionage. Moreover, all of the shipments are known to have taken place with the knowledge of the C.I.A.

Since 2012, the city of Adana, just 60 miles from the Syrian border, has been home to a "nerve center" set up in order to provide assistance to the Syrian rebels and staffed by intelligence operatives from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. In fact, U.S. support for the Syrian opposition is hardly a secret. Senator John McCain courted controversy by his 2013 trip (via Turkey) to Syria, where he posed for photographs with the Syrian rebels, describing them in a tweet as "brave fighters in Syria who are risking their lives for freedom and need our help."

On May 12, top senior U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlovewe -- the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of NATO Allied Command Operations and head of the U.S. European Command -- also came to Turkey. Breedlove visited a training center in the city of Kırşehir, near Ankara, which was recently created in order to train the Syrian rebels. Here, under U.S. and Turkish supervision, weapons training will be provided to a total of 15 thousand Syrian rebels over a three-year period. The U.S. and Turkey refer to these individuals as the "moderate opposition." Just what that term means in the context of Syria -- currently the destination of choice for jihadis from all parts of the globe -- is unclear.

In fact, Turkey's foreign policy has failed not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East. Turkey currently has no ambassadorssh in five Middle Eastern countries: Syria, Egypt, Israel, Yemen and Libya. The 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis with Israel was the first indication of the diplomatic troubles in store for Turkey, followed two years later by the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria. Just this week, Libya shelled a Turkish cargo ship off the coast of Tobruk, leading to the death of a crew member. In a less tragic but equally significant development, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece recently excluded Turkey from their newly-formed partnership to extract gas from the Eastern Mediterranean. As Turkey becomes more and more isolated in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia remains its only real ally in the region. However, it is the Saudis -- not Turkey -- who make the rules in this alliance.

SAUDI ARABIA'S WORST NIGHTMARE(S): THE ARAB UPRISINGS AND IRAN

The 2011 Arab Uprisings, which overthrew Qaddafi and Mubarak and created havoc for al-Assad, have become a nightmare for Saudi Arabia as well. The emergence of democratically-elected governments in the Middle East could be the death blow to the Saudi monarchy, which is unconcerned with popular opinion. The same applies to the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, such as Kuwait and the U.A.E., which also fear the tidal wave of change that toppled the military dictatorships of Libya and Egypt. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. backed the 2013 military coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; the two countries are regarded as el-Sisi's staunchest allies.

Saudi Arabia's other nightmare is Iran's growing influence in the Middle East. It is not totally accurate to view the Saudi-Iranian rivalry merely through the lens of Shiite versus Sunni. During the 1990s, Shiite Iran was the biggest supporter of the (Sunni) Islamic groups fighting in Bosnia as well as those vying for power in Algeria. Iran has also been one of the main allies of Hamas -- a Sunni organization -- in the Palestinian Territories. It was Iran, as well, that incited the demonstrations against Salman Rushdie that raged across the Muslim world in 1989. In short, contrary to popular belief, Iran has often succeeded in transcending the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Muslim world. Though one would hesitate to describe Iran as a democracy, its elections and parliamentary system -- as well as its revolutionary, anti-Israel, anti-Western discourse -- make it far more appealing to Muslims worldwide than U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. The recent nuclear negotiations between Tehran and the West have created the real possibility of lifting the sanctions on Iran and integrating it into the global economy -- all of which would spell catastrophe for Saudi Arabia.

Even a sanction-crippled Iran is a redoubtable opponent for Saudi Arabia in Syria, Yemen and Iraq; if its economy is resuscitated, Iran might very well unseat Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Middle East. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia is attempting to secure the support of the Middle East's Sunni majority against Iran by portraying this conflict as a Sunni-Shiite rivalry. Saudi Arabia is also the main party responsible for converting what were initially peaceful demonstrations in Syria into a Sunni revolt against the Alawite regime of al-Assad -- and then into an all-out sectarian war.

SYRIA: A SECOND AFGHANISTAN

Due to the failure of Turkey's over-ambitious foreign policy, it has had no choice but to join a broader Sunni alliance under Saudi Arabia's leadership -- especially given Turkey's need for Saudi and other Gulf state capital in order to prop up its own faltering economy. Four years ago, Turkey sought to make the rules in the Middle East; it is now forced to take a backseat to Saudi Arabia. There are currently two million Syrian refugees in Turkey. A large amount of territory across the border in Syria is under the control of ISIS, and jihadi groups are gathering recruits from all over the world (including Turkey) for the ongoing war in Syria. In June 2014, the Turkish consulate in Mosul, Iraq was raided by ISIS, which abducted 49 Turkish citizens (consisting of diplomats and other staff), only releasing them after a secret deal with the Turkish government. For four years, all of Erdoğan's predictions about the Middle East have turned out wrong. In his mind, ousting al-Assad is the only way to redeem himself and his country. But given the dire state of Iraq after Saddam's overthrow, and of Libya after Qaddafi's, no one has the slightest idea what a post-Assad Syria would look like.

During the 1980s, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. armed thousands of international jihadis -- the mujahideen -- who were flocking to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union; Reagan even met with a group of their leaders in the Oval Office in 1983. Just two decades later, however, it became clear that the U.S. had been playing a dangerous game in backing these "freedom fighters." Unfortunately, the very same scenario is now being repeated in Syria -- with Turkey assuming the role of Pakistan. The U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia have effectively created a new Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean. And yet, instead of trying to extinguish the conflagration in Syria, they continue to pour fuel on the fire.

Let us not celebrate a fifth anniversary of the Syrian conflic