The Saudi-UAE cold war with Iran has been a hot war for most of the Middle East. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen bare the brutal scars of outside powers competing for influence.
Against the backdrop of a deteriorating security situation in Idlib with Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s onslaught looming above a defenceless and besieged population, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is negotiating with all parties to weather the storm in Idlib and find an acceptable solution.
As Turkey gains its rightful place as a force for good in a troubled and dangerous world, it is perhaps time to determine the responsibilities of the various actors, not for revenge and retribution, but rather for reflection and memory. In this process, one can also analyse some of the geopolitical patterns that further weakened an already fragile situation in the Middle East, which in turn rendered peace and stability increasingly distant prospects in the region.
The competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is illustrative of Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive behaviour in the international arena. Ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Gulf has been trying to contain Tehran’s aggressive foreign policy orientation. However, it was the disastrous US intervention in Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent “de-Baathification” policy implemented by America’s viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremmer, which surrendered Iraq to pro-Iranian forces.
Ever since, the region’s balance has tilted in Iran’s direction, increasing the latter’s appetite for more power-grabbing outside its borders creating a domino effect of sectarian violence in the region.
The rise of Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria has pushed Saudi Arabia and Iran into a bitter cold war. The tense political environment has been further complicated by these two regimes’ religious and ideological competition, as both aspire to impose their brands of Islam on the Muslim world.
However, instead of building a strong coalition with their natural allies, the Saudis fought other Sunni forces even more ferociously than their Shia foes. Turkey, which represents the sole successful model for development and progress in the region, has been specifically targeted.
Riyadh’s opposition to the “Arab Spring”, that started in Tunisia in late 2010 and spilt over to other Arab countries, was also vicious and intractable. Seeing that the uprisings were about to dismantle the old authoritarian order, the Saudis joined forces with the UAE to impede its expansion at all costs.
These two countries supported proxies that carried out a coup d’etat (e.g. Egypt) and advised them to utilise counter-revolutionary movements and terrorist groups to shift the uprising from peaceful demonstrations into armed conflicts as it happened in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
The fact that Iran was also vehemently opposed to the “Arab Spring” led Tehran unleash its support for terror groups in the region. Consequently, these conflicts escalated into sectarian civil wars.
Despite the heavy Iranian intervention, the Saudi-UAE axis moved ahead with their plans to undermine Sunni forces. In the case of Syria, the axis’ meddling is a textbook example of how to implode a revolution from within. This was primarily done by strengthening the most radical elements while weakening the more moderate forces.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which specialises in researching conflicts and armaments, documented that from late 2012 to early 2013, 37 military cargo flights destined to extremist forces in Syria originated from various parts of Saudi Arabia. There were also 36 additional flights from Croatia to Jordan, which carried large amounts of weapons from the former Yugoslavia but were purchased in fact by the Saudis. At that juncture, Jordanian authorities also claimed to have seized several lorry loads of arms destined for Syria that had come from Riyadh, which can only reveal that a land route had been operational.
The Saudi-UAE axis was so blatant in grooming extremist elements that even former US Vice President Joe Biden publicly criticised the actions. At Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2014 he said, “the Saudis, the Emirates [UAE], etc. were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda.”
The ensuing internecine feuds within the opposition, the rise of the most extremist elements—who vehemently resisted any attempts at political resolutions—bear the hallmarks of the Saudi-UAE modus operandi.
Steered by an impetuous leader, Riyadh has further weakened the Sunni sphere, and the geo-strategic costs of the Saudis’ erratic behaviour are mounting.
Riyadh continues to create havoc in its neighbourhood by venturing into an unwinnable war in Yemen and blockading Qatar.
In the interim, the situation in Syria worsens every day. While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged the international community to be aware of its responsibilities in Syria, the UN, the EU, and the Arab States continue to sit on the fence waiting for the dust to settle. Washington on the other hand is waging an economic war on Turkey and is intensifying its support for the Syrian branch of the internationally-recognised terror group, the PKK.
Even so, Ankara is sparing no effort to stop a full-fledged Russian attack in Idlib by trying to neutralise the most radical groups, which were funded and supported by the Saudi-UAE axis. For their part, the legitimate Syrian opposition is pinning its last hopes on Turkey to prevent a bloodbath that could represent a severe blow to their aspirations for freedom and liberty.
In its defence of the Idlib population, the Turkish presidency proves that right makes might and not vice versa.
People in the Middle East and North Africa are taking note of Turkey’s principled and humanitarian-driven foreign policy and continue to dream of a day where a new and better order will govern their realm. In the meantime, one should neither forget nor forgive the dark Saudi role in fostering extremism and creating more avenues for foreign intervention in the region.
Turkey, as a matter of fact, has always considered the Saudis as friends. However, during these times and as the old adage goes, it is certainly better to have intelligent enemies than stupid friends.