The move of Saudi Arabia, aka Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to set up this alliance has not come as a surprise. The Wahhabi Sunni Kingdom has become a major focal point of Iranian subversive operations. Riyadh, while still supporting theanti-Assad opposition groups, has also become entangled in the Yemen war. In both cases, Saudi operations are facing directly or by-proxy Iranian forces. The Syrian Assad government is heavily backed by Tehran. Without the military support of Iran, and Russia, current successes on the ground would not have been possible. Shi’a supportfor the Alawi-backed Assad regime, in combination with Hezbollah support, is still the main life-line of the regime. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar, have been since the beginning of the anti-Assad revolt heavily involved, largely supporting financial and military support to the wide-range of opposition groups. Still, the lack of success of these anti-Assad forces, in combination with IS/Daesh related operations, have confronted the Sunni states with a fait accompli. Iran’s Shi’a approach was more successful. A Shi’a led Syria, in combination with Iran’s growing military-political power in Iraq, confronts Riyadh with an arch of instability on its northern borders.
At the same time, Iran became heavily involved in the ongoing civil war in Yemen. Tehran openly supports the Houthi-rebel forces, which are currently fighting an open war against Saudi-UAE backed Yemen government forces. After initial successes of that it would be open for any discussion on Syria’s future, which indicated even an option to discuss with Russia and Assad how to deal with the ongoing conflict. The latter of course stands contrary to the GCC approach, as all Arab Gulf states are currently supporting the anti-Assad groups in full.
Power Politics Breaking Up Saudi-Egyptian Cooperation
Egypt and Saudi Arabia also are having a strategic conflict. Both parties are currently trying to regain their former status or acquire a leading role in the New Middle East. Based on the historically and practical power position of Egypt, and especially its armed forces in the Arab world, a leading role for Cairo’s generals in any military operation or configuration would be normal. Sisi’s strategy to position the Egyptian forces, its main power base at present, as the leading for in any Arab/Sunni military organization has not only lead to a direct conflict with the Gulf Arab states, but also has caused Cairo to reconsider its strategic options.
At the same time, Saudi’s move to set up, almost unilaterally IMAFT, is seen by main stream Saudi military strategists, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a legitimate move to acquire a leading position in the Middle East. Riyadh already in 2013-2015 was not keen at all to fund a mainly Egyptian military force, capable of even invading other Arab countries. Some leaders in Riyadh were very wary of the possibility of such as force invading an Arab country (Saudi Arabia) under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Still, without the involvement and support of Egypt’s armed forces, IMAFT or whatever it will be called in due course, is a tiger without teeth.
Reality Is Bleak And Hits In?
Gulf Arab countries fully understood that any real military opposition against a covert or direct Iranian attack will only be able to be countered by an Arab army including Egypt. No real other strategic options at present are on the table for the GCC region, considering the partly retraction of US engagement in the Middle East. Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have been very disappointed by the US support (and the West) of not only the Arab Spring but more importantly the Iran nuclear deal. The support to lift almost all sanctions on Iran has brought a deep feeling of being abandoned by the West. The US also ruled out that they would actively support a mutual defence pact with the GCC countries. A possible NATO-like military cooperation between Washington and the GCC, which would have been a dream come true for the Arab countries, was totally put on ice. No other option than to put a full Arab military cooperation in force was at that time seen as the only option left. However, several Arab countries could not be taken in, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, were out of the total constellation already. Iran’s full military
cooperation with Syria and Iraq, even able to overwhelm Western support to opposition groups, confronted Saudi Arabia and its compatriots in the Gulf, with a dire situation. The only option left was to start it with a skeleton force of Arab countries, even leaving out Oman at that time, and to ask non-Arab Sunni Islamic countries to join. Hence the surprise move to take in countries from Africa and Asia, including Pakistan. The latter is still seen as one of the strongest non-Arab Islamic countries, when looking at its armed forces and nuclear capabilities. For some analysts, Saudi’s choice to ask Pakistan is clear.
Pakistani armed forces are very intertwined with Saudi armed forces, as they have been supporting and training with Saudi forces since decades. The Pakistani nuclear capability is also regarded as a strong strategic asset. Since the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, Pakistan’s arsenal also has been dubbed the Islamic NuclearBomb, as part of its research and development was funded by Arab countries. Taking in Pakistan not only increased IMAFT’s capabilities, but indirectly also confronted Iran with a second military front on its own borders, this time including a nuclear weapon option.
The distrust between Saudi Arabia and the US (West) also has resulted in another development. Saudi military evolution shows that it has become much more enticed to set up its own military force in full. Since 2003, its army has almost doubled, reaching a level of just above 200,000. The Saudi Air Force, which was not a real force in the
1990s or even beginning of the 21st Century, now is the second largest in the Arab world (behind Egypt), entailing around 300 planes. With its own missile defense systems and a burgeoning navy, the current defense posture is becoming impressive, in GCC terms. Still, a military confrontation with Iran would be looking for trouble and possible defeat. The ongoing Yemen confrontation also has led to a direr situation in the Syria-Iraq theatre. GCC forces are currently not anymore active in and around Syria. The only Sunni forces still in place are the Turkish army and Jordanian assets. Fighting on a third front, Libya, which would have been a major feature of a real Sunni military cooperation after Syria, is presently not possible. Egypt and the UAE are the only ones willing and able to
act in North Africa. The weakness of IMAFT approach at present is showing.
Will Turkey come to the rescue the main question is.
After being already part of IMAFT from the start, Turkey’s role is currently growing. Turkish president Erdogan has shown a willingness to act unilaterally, not only in his fight against terrorism in Turkey, but also willing to put Turkish armed forces in harm’s way if this will increase the regional power position of the country. The assertiveness
of Turkey in addressing the Daesh, and Kurdish armed groups, in Syria and Iraq, has brought Ankara a lot of praise inside the Arab ruling elites. The aggressive stand of Turkey, even with the danger of coming into a military confrontation with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah or others, is worrying to some but most Arab Sunni countries in the Gulf
region are looking at it with positive feelings. The latter already has brought a major change in the relationship between countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar on one side, and Turkey on the other.
In April 2016, it became clear that Saudi Arabia and Turkey were looking at a new marriage of convenience. The visit of King Salman to Turkey, officially to attend the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul, was showing a thaw in relations. The latter meeting was a follow-up of Turkish president Erdogan in December 2015. The Erdogan meeting in 2015 resulted in a strategic cooperation agreement, entailing military, economic and investment. When looking back now, it can be a first step of the creation of IMAFT. For Turkey, its strategy is still very diffuse. Some can argue that the alliance with Saudi Arabia has increased Ankara’s position to build up its regional strategic capacity in the Middle East. The setup of Turkish military bases in Qatar and Somalia is a sample of this. For Saudi, the Turkish involvement is also important, not only as Ankara can provide the 2nd largest armed forces in NATO, but also opens to Riyadh a highly sophisticated defence and military electronics industries. The latter has already been partly put in place, as there is a growing defense cooperation showing between Saudi and Turkish counterparts.
Riyadh seems to be happy to have Ankara in its military constellation, as this keeps Cairo partly in check, while also Saudi Arabia, and its GCC compatriots, have direct links to Turkey in case of a deepening confrontation with Iran. At the same time, Turkey’s growing cooperation with Russia (and Iran) presents the Arab countries with a major challenge. A split between the Sunni Arabs and Turkey could lead to a further destabilization of the already embattled region. If Turkey and Russia also can bring in Egypt to the other side (according to main-stream Arab the Dark Side), Saudi Arabia’s aspirations to lead the Arab Sunni world in the coming years could be in shambles.
For Riyadh, there is even more at stake than only the military confrontation with Iran and the instability on its borders. Saudi strategists will also be looking at the necessity of increased inter-Arab cooperation and the integration of Turkey in its influence spheres if the economic confrontation with Iran is to be won too. Analysts are referring to Turkey’s renewed close relations with Moscow as a USP for Ankara in its discussions with the Arabs. At present, Saudi Arabia (as the main OPEC producer) and other Arab GCC producers are looking at Moscow, leading non-OPEC producers (if taking out the US), for increased coordination in the oil markets. After decades of confrontation between OPEC and Russia, the current situation is the contrary. Leaving geopolitical issues aside
(especially Syria-Iraq), Saudi Arabia is looking for cooperation with Moscow. The latter already has opened to this, as it decided in 2016 to openly discuss OPEC-Non-OPEC cooperation in full. Turkey’s role in this new relation could be vital, as it holds stakes on both sides. Ankara has reopened its channels with Moscow, even discussing at present
military cooperation and Russian military exports to the NATO country. At the same time, Ankara is steadily improving its stand in the Arab world, with as its main focal point Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Growing economic and military cooperation is one of the cornerstones at present. Saudi Arabia (and several GCC countries) fully acknowledge the pivotal role of these Arab countries, but also is more than willing to be a bridge between Russia and the Arab world. As a Sunni European-Asian power broker, it can bring its European/Western approach in line with a Sunni-Islamic flavor. Some even have indicated that Turkey’s ongoing economic relations with Iran will be a price asset, as Ankara can discuss Sunni-geopolitical concerns in full in Tehran. Arab political strategists also have said that the Arab rapprochement with Turkey is meant to increase the pressure on the Russian-Iranian military cooperation. By opening to a more normal geopolitical, economic and military relationship with Russia, Arab countries, including Turkey, could become much more attractive to Moscow than its current main ally in the region, Iran and its supporters (Assad-Hezbollah).
For Turkey, the current reorientation on the Middle East has been pushed forward by an unexpected military coup mid-July 2016. The reactions from the West, and large amount of criticism on president Erdogan, have forced it to focus on the Middle East, looking for a new power position in the Arab world. An alignment with Russia and China, as some have been afraid off, is currently not really on the table. At present, Ankara is in a decision-making process which could lead to a rearrangement of alliances. When looking at IMAFT, Turkey is at present interested in this third alternative, a regional security alliance, led by Saudi Arabia, but supported by Pakistan. For Western analysts, it is very interesting to see if Ankara really is going to break with its old alliances (NATO), and will forge a new one. As stated above, Turkey has been setting up already military and economic agreements with Saudi Arabia (and the GCC) and Pakistan. Turkey is setting up bilateral military development agreements with Riyadh, while already being a major arms exporter to Pakistan. Just before the Munich Security Conference, Turkish president Erdogan already has stepped up his efforts to gain traction in the Arab world again. Erdogan has been touring the GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. According to İbrahim Kalın, assistant to the Turkish President, Turkey developed a wide-ranging relationship with the Gulf countries. The Turkey-GCC High Level Strategic Dialogue mechanism established in 2008 in Jeddah has helped realize new potential but ought to be further activated to create new opportunities. Currently Turkey has large interest in security priorities and economic outlook of the GCC countries. For Turkey, main interest is also GCC support for Ankara’s security concerns over the PKK and FETÖ. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain have taken several steps to stop the activities of FETÖ institutions and individuals in their countries. At the same time, Turkey and the GCC are confronting Daesh and other terrorist organizations.
Erdogan has reiterated during his visit that Riyadh and Ankara have repaired ties strained over the 2013 ousting of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, a Turkish ally. Since 2016 Turkey has hosted Saudi warplanes at its Incirlik air base as part of the US-led coalition against Daesh militants, who are among an array of factions fighting in Syria. The capture at the end of 2016 by Syria’s army of the country’s second city Aleppo, backed by Russian air strikes, was a setback for Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Even that Turkey is coordinating part of its operations in Syria with Russia, and Assad-Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are still largely on the same line, a removal of Islamists extremist groups is still the main operational goal of both. During his visit to Ankara beginning of February, Saudi Foreign Minister Al Jubeir stated that the positions of Saudi Arabia and Turkey are “absolutely identical” on Syria. Both Riyadh and Ankara are hoping for better relations with Washington under President Donald Trump. Some issues however still need to be removed before Saudi Arabia and Turkey are again real
buddies. Erdogan’s full cooperation with Qatar and the build-up of a Turkish military base in the latter country, is still looked upon by Riyadh with suspicion. While both states are united in their backing for rebels fighting Assad’s regime, they also shared support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. If this is not cleared, a real open military relationship could still be blocked. Riyadh’s issues with Qatar is still unresolved, even that diplomatic warmth has returned in the media. Under the surface, Saudi Arabia is still looking for a real break between Doha and several leading Islamist groups, especially Muslim Brotherhood, but also Hamas and others. Turkey’s close ties to Doha will also be a constant in the ongoing discussions in Riyadh. No Saudi defense minister or heir-apparent will be looking for close relations with either of them, as long MB and others are removed totally. Turkey’s political stamina and prowess will be also tasked by Riyadh and others with regards to Israel. Ankara’s opening to Israel, after a long period of conflict, could be bringing unexpected gains. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are fully aware of Israel’s