Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a trip to Riyadh to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The meeting, which took place behind closed doors, seemed to have planted the seeds for a breakthrough: three weeks later, Turkey expressed its support for the Saudi-led mission in Yemen. In doing so, it formally approved Riyadh’s air campaign against the Houthis, followers of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam who have swept across that country’s northwest with the backing of certain Yemeni military factions. 

The news fed speculation that Ankara was ready to more openly enter the region’s sectarian strife. Some observers concluded that Turkey was now part of the Saudi-led Sunni axis and was ready to publicly challenge Iran, which has given some support to the Houthis. There might be some ground to these assertions: Erdogan has since explicitly linked the Houthis’ rise to Iranian encouragement and called on “Iran and the terrorist groups” to withdraw from Yemen. Still, conclusions of that sort are far too simplistic, failing to capture either the schisms that continue to characterize the Saudi-Turkish relationship or the pragmatism that lies at its core. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Saudi Arabia's King Salman, March 2015
Saudi Press Agency

True, Turkey’s decision to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis stems from its overarching interest in strengthening ties with the new Saudi leadership. In setting that goal, Erdogan is seeking to mend some fences. Although Ankara has traditionally pursued a deferential policy toward Riyadh—most recently during the Kingdom’s deployment of troops in Bahrain—the two sides have lately found themselves at odds more often than not. Among their main points of contention were the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (which Turkey supports and Saudi Arabia doesn’t) and, more broadly, the future of political Islam in the Arab world. 

After the start of the Arab revolts, Turkey positioned itself as a champion of democratic change. In 2012, Ahmet Davutoglu—then minister of foreign affairs and now prime minister—announced that Turkey’s post–Arab Spring policy toward the Middle East would be “value-based,” with an “emphasis on democracy and popular legitimacy.” He slammed the region’s “archaic regimes” for remaining on the wrong side of history and supporting oppression. In December last year, Davutoglu criticized Riyadh even more explicitly, arguing that Saudi Arabia colluded with the West to deter democracy and to keep the region under the yoke of autocrats.

The disagreement has mostly centered on Egypt, but the two sides have also widely diverged on Syria. Both support the insurgency there, which is fighting the Tehran-backed Assad regime. But their failure to see eye to eye has helped to fragment the opposition, leading each to embrace groups that fall outside the mainstream. In northern Syria, Saudi Arabia has favored nationalist organizations: the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm. And Turkey has gravitated toward Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda) and Ahrar al-Sham (a Salafi rebel group with close ties to it).

Ankara has maintained that its objective is not to fuel extremism; rather, it hoped to ultimately co-opt the rebels it supported, spurring them to wage war not only on the Assad regime but also on the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Turkey has even backed Qatar in its efforts to pressure al-Nusra to renounce ties to al Qaeda central.

Militants loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the country's Lahj province
Stringer / Reuters

Yet when it comes to the Syrian front, the two states have been drifting closer together—a change that preceded their recent rapprochement over Yemen. In fact, in many ways, the Yemen operation is tangential to this emerging area of collaboration, and the two policy shifts are better understood in tandem. 

On the whole, it was Saudi Arabia that has gradually endorsed the Turkish strategy in Syria and began to cooperate more closely with Ankara’s efforts to unite the Islamist insurgency in the north. Three concurrent developments were at play. First, Riyadh’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood has softened with the death of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and his succession by Salman, who remains deeply skeptical of the group but seems to believe that the disagreement over its role was hindering Saudi foreign policy. Second, both Saudi proxies in northern Syria (SRF and Harakat Hazm) have recently suffered defeat at the hands of al-Nusra, depriving Riyadh of allies in a conflict that it is desperately trying to win. And third, Saudi Arabia is growing concerned that Iran has seized the initiative on key regional battlegrounds—a development that, when combined with the events in Yemen and Iraq, raises Riyadh’s fears of getting encircled by Shia rivals.

It’s therefore safe to assume that during their meeting, Erdogan and Salman sought to recalibrate the two countries’ approach to Syria—and that their agreement on Yemen came as a side benefit. For Turkey, endorsing the Saudi position on the Houthis costs little and helps further its primary policy focus: its war against the Assad government. 

THE IRAN FACTOR

This marriage of convenience between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however, overshadows key policy differences. Most important, Ankara views Iran in far different terms than Riyadh. Its position toward Tehran has roots in deep pragmatism that transcends ideological conflict, making it unlikely that Turkey will ever sacrifice its relationship with Iran to benefit Saudi ambitions in the region. 

A Houthi fighter stands guard in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in April 2015
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

For one, Turkey acknowledges Iran’s strong role in the Middle East and doesn’t seek to contest it. In his seminal book, Strategic Depth, Davutoglu described Iran and Turkey as two of the three sides of a regional triangle (the third being Egypt). These three states, he argued, envelop weaker Arab countries that were created artificially, and they wield influence in different areas of the Middle East: Turkey in the Anatolian basin, Syria, and northern Iraq; Iran in the Mesopotamian basin and southern Iraq; and Egypt in the Levant and North Africa. 

This geopolitical vision means that Turkey recognizes some natural limits to its influence in contested areas, even if it views itself as being in competition with Iran for regional clout. Indeed, the two states actually share one critical interest: preventing Kurdish independence. Although they both support different Kurdish factions, they need one another to keep their proxies in check—or risk facing the far greater threat of Kurdish separatism. Historically, that has meant that, even during times of tension, neither side could escalate hostilities beyond a certain threshold.

Moreover, Turkey does not share Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. Ankara has repeatedly spoken out in favor of Iran’s “right to enrich,” so long as Tehran adheres to its nonproliferation commitments. Much of the Gulf, by contrast, has pushed for a more hard-line approach. Unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran’s latent nuclear capacity will endow the country with greater coercive powers to foment sectarian strife.

Ankara and Riyadh also diverge when it comes to their energy policies. In this realm, Turkey and Iran are deeply interdependent. Turkey currently receives more than 90 percent of Iranian natural gas exports, which constitute 20 percent of its yearly consumption. This explains why Ankara resisted international sanctions on Iran and ultimately turned to a surreptitious oil-for-gold scheme to pay for Iranian energy deliveries. A good nuclear deal with Iran—and consequently the easing of sanctions on the country—is therefore in Turkey’s interest. 

Finally, there are underlying structural differences between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The first relies on exports for economic growth, whereas the second is a rentier state. Indeed, Ankara has consistently sought to deepen economic ties with the Islamic Republic, but its efforts have been hindered by Iran’s closed economy. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has no such concerns and would welcome continued economic isolation for Iran. 

Turkey’s regional interests, therefore, require it to tread a fine line between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For the past four years, Ankara has been able to compartmentalize its relationship with Tehran; the two sides continued to cooperate while the forces they backed clashed in Syria. Turkey’s new tactic with regard to Saudi Arabia is similar: the two sides will continue to disagree about political Islam even as their policies on Syria—and now Yemen—grow closer. Rather than signaling a major change to Turkish priorities, this approach is merely a continuation of tactics that Turkey has relied on for years in a region at war.

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  • AARON STEIN is a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
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