Hardly a day passes without a new development in the Middle East. The already complicated picture in the region has even become more challenging with the Saudi led- military operation in Yemen. Backed by 10 nations, Saudi Arabia launched the “Operation Decisive Storm” to defend the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels, who had made large advances in the country.
Turkey was not late to show its position regarding the operation. Ankara said it supports the Saudi-led mission against Houthi forces and has been informed in advance by the kingdom about the military operation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Ankara may consider providing intelligence and logistical support to the mission based on the evolution of the situation.
He also accused Iran, which supports the Houthis, for trying to dominate the region with a sectarian agenda, calling “both Iran and terrorist groups to withdraw from Yemen.”
Erdoğan’s sharp statements regarding Tehran and its influence in the region came days before his planned visit to Iran in early April. While the presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin underlined that there would be no change in Erdogan’s schedule and that the developments have further raised the importance of the visit, the climate in the Iranian side seems different.
Despite being concerned of Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East from Syria to Iran, from Lebanon to Yemen, Ankara has always avoided confrontation with the Shiite countrySinem Cengiz
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced Erdoğan’s accusations over Iran’s ambition to dominate the region and accused the Turkish leader for “fomenting strife in the Middle East.”
Furthermore Iranian officials asked the Foreign Ministry to postpone Erdogan’s scheduled trip to Tehran in April. It is still early to predict on how Erdoğan’s statements will affect the visit and Turkish-Iranian relations in general.
Turkish-Iranian relations are based on pragmatism and mutual interests. Despite being concerned of Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East from Syria to Iran, from Lebanon to Yemen, Ankara has always avoided confrontation with the Shiite country.
And this is not the first time Turkish and Iranian officials have engaged in tit-for-tat accusations. However, Erdoğan’s statement: “This has begun to annoy us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. It is really not tolerable and Iran must see this” is particularly significant and should be underlined.
Turkey, with Erdoğan’s critical statement regarding Tehran, made its stance clear towards both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Turkish stance also strengthens the arguments regarding the formation of a “Sunni bloc” against Iran. With its support to the mission, Turkey is also now on the “same page” with two regional countries: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
It would be in the best interest of Turkey to pursue a controlled policy regarding Yemen, in particular, and the regional crisis, in general. If Turkey would adopt an approach based on geopolitics and pragmatism rather than the ideology or sectarian approach, it will avoid being seriously affected from the crises in the region.
In the Yemeni crisis, what Turkey can do would be to offer a third way in the solution of the conflict, engage into efforts to bring conflicting sides into political dialogue and assume a supra-sectarian position in the crisis with its potential in the region.
Regarding Turkey’s offer to provide logistical support to the mission, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that: “we said we can give every kind of support, including intelligence, but not military support.”
In the camp
Here, it is important to mention some points with reference to the Gulf War in 1990-91. Since the Gulf War, Yemen is the first country in which several countries came together in one camp. It is also a camp that Turkey supports.
In the Gulf War, which was the most significant development after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Turkey sided with the coalition forces led by the U.S. in order to carve a new position to itself in the region. Turkey actively supported the coalition, imposed U.N. sanctions to Saddam’s regime, allowed the American troops to use its bases to strike Iraq, deployed troops to its border with Iraq and shut off the two pipelines used to transport Iraqi oil through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea.
Although it did not send troops to fight along the coalition forces, its position in the war cost Turkey - both economic and political.
Today, Yemen means different things for Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Firstly one needs to make this clear. Geopolitically and strategically, Yemen is an important country for Saudi Arabia. Instability and presence of Iranian influence in its southern neighbor is a great concern to Gulf’s powerhouse, Saudi Arabia. Iran’s expansionist policies also pose a threat towards Saudi’s own Shiite population. With Yemen, under its control, Iran would not have a Shia crescent but will totally encircle the region.
Therefore, Yemen has become an area of proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran and the conflict in the country is a clear reflection of a region-wide struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This struggle further fuels the sectarian strife in the regional level.
It is not a secret that Iran considers Gulf as its backyard. It seeks to strengthen its grip on the Gulf countries, wants to shape the dynamics in those countries according to its own interests and have a control over the Gulf in general. This is the worst scenario for both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but a nightmare for Riyadh.
In regards to mentioned above, Yemen is not Turkey’s foreign policy priority. Ankara can be a mediator but not a party in this crisis.
While the region is dragged into a sectarian conflict and still the outcomes of the operation to Yemen are unclear, being party to one side would keep Turkey into a very difficult situation. Turkey would risk facing challenges from neighbors in Shiite bloc, namely Iran, Iraq and Syria.
So, Turkey’s current stance in the Yemeni crisis may help her to restore its ties with the Arab world, but risks Ankara’s position in the region.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst based in Athens. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. She was also the former diplomatic correspondent for Today’s Zaman newspaper, English daily in Turkey. She is currently researching on Turkish-Saudi relations to complete her MA in International Relations. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz
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