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What does the convergence of Saudi Arabia’s and Turkey’s Syria and Yemen policies mean for Turkey? Recently, news surfaced regarding two potential avenues of cooperation between the Kingdom and Turkey: the possible provision of Turkish logistical support to the Saudis in their clash against the Houthis in Yemen and high-level talks between the two nations on increased cooperation to oust the Assad regime in Syria.

After the non-success of Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine, is Turkey making another miscalculation regarding the region? A look at the current debate suggests that joining Saudi Arabia’s Sunni bloc will degrade Turkey’s potential to be a mediator instead of an instigator and hamper its ability to navigate future regional instability.

As Iranian influence grows in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, the benefit of bringing Turkey in as a counterbalance is clear for Saudi Arabia. But the benefit for Turkey is not so clear, especially because Turkey’s foreign policy has been defied by on-the-ground developments in Syria, Egypt, and other countries. Critics see the developing Turkey-Saudi relationship as another in a series of moves towards a more sectarian MENA region policy by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Assuming that such an alignment is a natural choice is an oversimplification, as Turkey does not share Riyadh’s existential fear of the “political goals of the Iranian revolution: revolution, overthrow of entrenched elites, anti-monarchical posture, support for meaningful democratic structures... a direct challenge to the long-standing American political and military domination of the Middle East, strong support for the Palestinian cause and a feisty nationalism.”[1] Moreover, historically characterized by stability and even support for Iran’s “right to enrich,” Turkey’s relationship with Iran does not have to be adversarial.

There is another argument that posits Turkey’s development of closer ties with Saudi Arabia is an extension of a delicate balance the republic has struck between taking an ideological stance and cultivating a practical outlook towards the region. “For the past four years, Ankara has been able to compartmentalize its relationship with Iran,” notes Foreign Affairs’ Aaron Stein, who argues that Turkey’s move towards Saudi Arabia is “merely a continuation of tactics that Turkey has relied on for years in a region at war.”[2]

However, offering ground troops for a Syrian intervention and making incendiary statements about Iran does not seem to be in line with a policy of compartmentalization. Met with an acrid Iranian reaction, Erdoğan’s recent comparison of Iran to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)[3] could clearly not be ignored by Iranian officials and “may be the most imprudent statement ever heard from a Turkish official on Iran.”[4] As a recent Al-Monitor article notes, “Turkey, which succeeded in staying away from sectarian conflicts until the AKP [AK Party] came to power, is now becoming a part of a sectarian polarization for the sake of blocking Iran.”[5]

What price will Turkey pay for aligning itself with the Kingdom? Observers point to an opportunity cost: taking sides on Yemen, like it did with Syria, could make it more difficult for Turkey to maintain its position as a mediator rather than an active participant in regional disputes. Murat Yetkin argues: “Escalating sectarian tensions in the region will have no benefit for Turkey and any other country. (...) There is no need to become a part of even a more serious polarization and confrontation.”[6] The probability of success in either ousting Assad or Yemen’s Houthi militia is diminishing. Why should Turkey sacrifice the possibility of stable relations with Iran for an alignment that could deepen Turkey’s entanglement in two intractable conflicts in Syria and Yemen, or at the very least deepen the gulf between Sunni and Shiite powers in the region?


[1] Graham Fuller, “Why the Crisis in Yemen Could Tilt Mideast Power From Saudi Arabia Toward Iran, Turkey and Pakistan,” The Huffington Post, 23 April 2014.

[2] Aaron Stein, “Turkey's Yemen Dilemma,” Foreign Affairs, 7 April 2015.

[3] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “Turkey may give Saudi Yemen operation ‘logistical’ support,” interview with France 24, 26 March 2015,

[4] Cengiz Çandar, “Erdogan Focuses on Trade during Iran Visit” Al-Monitor, 8 April 2015.

[5] Fehim Taştekin, “Are Turkey, Saudi Arabia Working Together against Iran?” Al-Monitor, 5 March 2015.

[6] Taştekin (2015). 

Rachel Webb
Rachel Webb

Rachel Webb is a freelance editor based in Istanbul.

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