Expected Saudi-Turkish reconciliation, any implications for Syria?
Enab Baladi – Jana Alisa
The Syria issue has often been a point of disagreement or reconciliation on the table of negotiations between influential actors. Recently, several questions have been raised about the expected Turkish-Saudi reconciliation and its implications for Syria on various levels, notably militarization since the two countries support different Syrian military groups.
After four years of severed Turkish-Saudi ties, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on 10 May, paid a two-day visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Even though Saudi Arabia made only brief statements following the visit, Çavuşoğlu invited his Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, to visit Turkey in the near future. He also expressed the willingness of the two countries to maintain dialogue “to address their disagreements.”
Reducing SDF-related pressure on Ankara
Bilal Salaymeh, a researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID), told Enab Baladi that Saudi Arabia’s reconciliation with Turkey would not likely have a major impact on the Syrian file nor bring about a dynamic change on the Syrian territory. However, he predicted little changes in Saudi Arabia’s relations with some political players in the Syrian issue.
He pointed out that there may be a change in Saudia Arabia’s policy with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Autonomous Administration that controls areas in northeastern Syria, or some of the parties in the east of the Euphrates. It is noteworthy that Riyadh used its relations with those parties to exert pressure on Ankara in the past few years.
Saudia Arabia enhanced its relations with the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration after the Saudia Minister of State for Gulf affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, met some US officials in northeastern Syria in 2019 in addition to several elders, notables and administrators from the tribes and councils of Deir Ezzor governorate. This visit is regarded as the second after he visited Raqqa in 2017.
The first visit took place after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) and Turkish offensives in northern Syria. The visit was interpreted as an attempt to support the SDF against Ankara, whose relations with Riyadh saw diplomatic tension.
However, an SDF source told the New Arab newspaper that the visit focused on Saudi Arabia financing the Washington-backed Arab forces to stop the Iranian expansion attempts in northeastern Syria.
Researcher Bilal Salaymeh expects that the Turkish-Saudi reconciliation could affect the structure and leadership of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The election of figures who assumed leadership positions in the SNC in the past few years was linked to the regional balance of power in the Syrian conflict.
According to the researcher, Turkey has built more influence over the SNC leadership with the downturns of Turkish-Saudi relations.
He added that the restoration of Turkish-Saudi relations would result in a kind of consensus on the person who will lead the coalition.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, commonly named the SNC, was established in November 2012, after several meetings between a group of politicians opposed to the Syrian regime and members of the revolutionary uprising in the Qatari capital Doha. The SNC presented itself as an umbrella group for the opposition against the Syrian regime. The SNC has been chaired since its establishment by nine Syrian politicians.
The Arab Gulf states recognized the coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people and withdrew their recognition from the current regime headed by Bashar al-Assad. The SNC was recognized by the League of Arab States as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, except for Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
But the SNC was met with widespread criticism and accusations about its political performance and lack of comprehensiveness of the entire opposition poles.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces is regarded as the largest body of the opposition; it has in the opposition-controlled areas a military arm represented by the Syrian National Army (SNA) and an administrative arm represented by the Interim Government (IG).
Saudi–Turkish antagonism exacerbated Syrian opposition’s divisions
Since the beginning of 2021, disputes have resurfaced again between the components of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which was formed during the Riyadh I conference on 10 December 2015.
In the Riyadh II conference held in November 2017, the platforms of Cairo and Moscow were included in the HNC.
There has been an apparent split within the HNC, which roots go back to December 2019, to what it is called “independent opposition group’s” crisis.
The “independents crisis” arose in the HNC in 2019, after the Saudi capital, Riyadh, hosted many Syrians to replace them with some independents in the HNC. But, it failed to appoint eight new persons.
Saudi Arabia was criticized by Syrian opposition figures whom Enab Baladi interviewed earlier due to its support for the Coordination Committee and Cairo and Moscow platforms. Suadi Arabia seeks to increase its influence in the Syrian opposition through these components, at the expense of “the Turkish influence,” according to the Saudi vision.
Turkey is the main supporter of the SNC, the largest bloc in the opposition. It also supports the largest military opposition formations, the SNA in northern Syria, and has good relations with the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
Independents’ crisis: what is the role of Saudi Arabia?
The HNC consists of 36 members distributed as follows: eight from the SNC, four from the Cairo platform, and four from the Moscow platform, in addition to eight independent members, seven from the military factions, and five from the Coordination Committee. Each member has a vote within the HNC.
The spokesperson for the independent opposition group, Muhanad al-Kate’, told Enab Baladi that the “old independents” mandate ended about two years ago.
Before the conference of independents was held in December 2019, Saudi Arabia asked the HNC to prepare for elections, but the SNC at that time extended three months under the pretext of military operations in northwestern Syria, according to al-Kate’.
At that time, letters were sent to all parties to the HNC to prepare for the elections, according to al-Kate’.
He indicated that it was the only mechanism for scaling up the independents.
He explained that “those who were not invited to the first conference will be invited to the second one. This turns into a mechanism for appointing independents to avoid monopolizing the position.”
Al-Kate’ argued that the crisis of Syrian independents started when the regulations of the HNC were ignored, the outgoing independents and the head of the HNC were kept in the commission. Then, the HNC was completely disrupted after the meeting, which Saudi Arabia sponsored, as internationally entrusted with the auspices of the HNC.
Motives for reconciliation and chances of its success?
Since late 2020, Turkey has shown its willingness to establish relations with various countries and consolidate relations with other countries after tensions and disagreements with the European Union, the USA, and Arab countries.
The Turkish president expressed his country’s openness to improving its relations in the current year and said, “We do not have any problems or difficult issues with Europe, the USA, Russia, China or any country in the region.”
Turkey intends to re-normalizing some of its troubled relations, such as its relations with Saudia Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. It aims to reposition itself regionally and arrange its file in foreign policy, according to Bilal Salaymeh.
Salaymeh believes that Turkey’s decisions to restore its relations with some countries due to the US’s political pressures on Turkey. Turkey has been experiencing subsequent difficult economic conditions after the US President, Joe Biden, assumed power. Furthermore, Turkey has tense relations with the European Union due to the Eastern Mediterranean file and tense relations with Cyprus and Greece.
Salaymeh considered Saudi Arabia to take a “hesitant stance” on the return of its relations with Turkey. Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia sent a “negative” message by closing some Turkish schools in Riyadh. At the same time, a number of Saudi schools in Istanbul and Ankara were also closed.
Researcher on Turkish affairs and international relations, Taha Odeh Oğlu, said in an interview with Enab Baladi, that according to the data, restoring the diplomatic channels between Ankara and Riyadh is not easy, given that the tensions between them reached their highest peak for many years as a result of the two countries’ open statements. This made the opportunity to deal with the issue diplomatically more difficult.
Taha Odeh Oğlu believes that the region is currently trying to adapt to international changes, foremost of which is the Biden administration. The new administration of the US imposes on the countries of the region to adopt a new foreign discourse commensurate with the stage.
Relations between Ankara and Riyadh witnessed the height of tension following the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in 2018, at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
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