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Friday, March 06, 2015

Saudi king aims for new Sunni bloc vs Iran and Islamic State

Are Turkey, Saudi Arabia working together against Iran? The relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia until now has been treated as almost sacrosanct and is one that is not argued about. Although Turkish and Saudi views on regional issues do not always coincide, both Ankara and Riyadh have kept their bilateral relations away from regional squabbles. Turks, in general, associate Saudi Arabia with pilgrimage (hajj) and oil prices. Aware of the tense rivalry for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey has tried to maintain good relations with both countries, and it was in Syria that Turkish and Saudi interests meshed. Although they agree that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, the Turkish-Qatari axis competes with that of Saudi Arabia in Syria. Some suggest that the failure of the Syrian opposition to get its act together was because of this competition. A similar rivalry is now seen in Egypt because of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Libya because of the AKP’s support of the Tripoli government instead of the one in Tobruk. Although Saudi Arabia is the most prominent supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the Tobruk government in Libya, Turkey has not raised its voice against Riyadh while disparaging other countries. Now, Erdogan is adding a new controversial dimension to the unblemished Turkish relationship with Saudi Arabia. Summary⎙ Print Analysts fear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being dragged into Saudi Arabia's anti-Iran Sunni bloc. Author Fehim TaştekinPosted March 5, 2015 TranslatorTimur Göksel During his visit to Saudi Arabia between Feb. 28 and March 2, Erdogan in his meeting with the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, reached an agreement to increase Saudi-Turkish support of the Syrian opposition to levels that would enable the two countries to achieve their goals there. According to journalists accompanying Erdogan, Salman also promised to support Turkey in declaring a no-fly zone. The two leaders, in addition to discussing Syria, Iran, Yemen, Palestine and Egypt, also reached an understanding that illustrates how Turkey is now being dragged into the much more dangerous issue of Iran. The pro-government daily Yeni Safak described the Saudi-Turkish understanding as follows: “Iran’s sectarian approach in the region was on the agenda of the two leaders. Both were disturbed by Iran’s expansionist and sectarian attitude. Iran is spending massive resources on shedding Muslim blood and destabilizing Muslim countries.” Thus, Saudi Arabia, uncomfortable with Iran’s growing influence over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, is pulling Turkey to its side. The new Saudi-Turkish alliance seems to be an effort by the Sunnis to form a bloc against the Shiite world. Turkey, which succeeded in staying away from sectarian conflicts until the AKP came to power, is now becoming a part of a sectarian polarization for the sake of blocking Iran. Salman, faced with the political crisis in Yemen as soon as he took power, is now hoping to change the power balance in the region by attracting Egypt and Turkey to his side. Whether Salman will succeed depends on his ability to end the hostilities between Erdogan and Sisi. But the first political encounter between Salman and Erdogan did not yield that outcome. Salman met with Sisi a day before meeting Erdogan, in an effort to keep the Egypt issue on the sidelines, while nurturing the Saudi-Turkish friendship. Before taking off for Riyadh, Erdogan, when asked if he was going to meet Sisi, replied: “You must be joking. For such a thing to happen there must be serious, positive steps.” When journalists on Erdogan's plane back to Ankara asked whether the various sensitivities in regard to Egypt will affect the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Erdogan replied: "There may be differences but they are not at a level to affect our bilateral relations. Our goal is to anchor Turkish-Saudi relations for [the benefit of] the Middle East and Islamic world. I was informed, for instance, that they have the same views in regard to a no-fly zone and safe zones in Syria, and a train-and-equip program. We must treat the Egypt issue separately, as [it] should not cast any shadows on our relationship with Saudi Arabia." Asked if the Saudis had made a proposal for peace with Egypt, Erdogan said: "Of course, they want us to reconcile with Egypt at high levels but they don’t insist.” It is not easy to guess what will satisfy Erdogan toward normalization with Egypt, but it may well be that a new government in Egypt after the coming elections may be the opportunity that is needed. Salman’s real concern is to form a Sunni bloc to limit Iran's influence. Erdogan, who in recent years has interfered in Iraq’s domestic affairs to achieve just that, is now trying to end his diplomatic isolation by encouraging Salman to include Turkey in the Saudi plan. But their reported accord on Syria is a hopeless case. It is almost impossible for Turkey and Saudia Arabia — in light of their goal to ensure a Syrian opposition victory against Assad — to alter Washington’s declared goal of “[prioritizing] the Islamic State, not Assad.” The no-fly zone is a plan that nobody except Erdogan talks about. As the Islamic State becomes a true threat to everyone, it simply does not look feasible for Turkey to persuade even one of its NATO allies, let alone the UN Security Council. This is why Erdogan’s anger is directed against Iran, which he holds responsible for the failure of his regional ambitions. But there is a serious miscalculation here. Despite their regional rivalry, Turkey has never deviated from its stable relations with Iran in the past. The two countries have not been engaged in a border conflict since 1639 and realize the importance of understanding each other, and somehow getting along. However, this new polarization Ankara officials promote as “partnership against sectarianism” may well serve only to inflame sectarian conflict and negatively impact that stability. Veteran writer Murat Yetkin, when noting that the United States and Israel will be the ones profiting from this move, issued a well-placed warning: “The Saudi dynasty seems to feel besieged. They are thinking of overcoming that sentiment by forming a Sunni bloc against Iran. Israel will of course be delighted with the idea and the United States may feel it is obtaining another pressure element against Iran in their nuclear talks. The Saudis, well aware of Iran’s influence on the Shiites and other non-Sunni Muslims, want to pull in Turkey and Egypt to the bloc they want to form. Yes, that's right — they want to make use of the vast Sunni population of Turkey, an ... [early] member of the Council of Europe, a member of NATO and a candidate for European Union [membership]. Even if Turkey and Egypt are reconciled with a magic wand, Turkey has to stay away from this anti-Iran or anti-Shiite front. … Escalating sectarian tensions in the region will have no benefit for Turkey and any other country. It will mean more violence and death. While the troubles caused by Turkey’s Syria policy are there for all to see, there is no need to become a part of even a more serious polarization and confrontation.” In short, persisting with a bankrupt Syria policy, which brought with it major problems, and entering into a sectarian alliance, which will provoke a complicated confrontation with Iran, can only be a new and critical miscalculation that will shift Turkey from its course that it has been so proud of until now. Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/turkey-saudi-plan-anti-iran-sunni-bloc.html#ixzz3TbISKNlV Saudi king aims for new Sunni bloc vs Iran and Islamic State BY ANGUS MCDOWALL AND AMENA BAKR RIYADH/DOHA Thu Mar 5, 2015 1:37pm EST Saudi Arabia's King Salman is seen during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Erga Palace in Riyadh January 27, 2015. CREDIT: REUTERS/JIM BOURG (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is pushing for Sunni Muslim Middle East countries to set aside differences over political Islam and focus on what it sees as more urgent threats from Iran and Islamic State. Its new monarch, King Salman, has used summits with leaders of all five Gulf Arab states, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey over the past 10 days to reinforce the need for unity and find a way to work around disagreements over the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia's deep-seated mistrust of the Islamist group is unchanged, diplomats say. But King Salman's approach to it is more nuanced than that of his predecessor King Abdullah, who died in January, and may include being more indulgent of allies who allow its members space to operate. Last year Riyadh, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, withdrew its ambassador from Qatar over its links to the Brotherhood. "The Saudis think maybe, if the Sunnis are on good terms, we can confront this. Salman is trying to consolidate the Sunni world and put differences over the Muslim Brotherhood on the back burner," said an Arab diplomat in the Gulf. Riyadh's bigger concern is Shi'ite Iran. Its fears about the rising influence of its main regional enemy have grown recently as Tehran's Houthi allies seized swathes of Yemen and its commanders have aided Shi'ite militias fighting in Iraq. Prospects are also growing of a deal between world powers and Iran on Tehran's disputed nuclear program, which might lift pressure on the Islamic republic. Saudi Arabia has watched nervously as its key ally, the United States, has reached out to pursue an agreement with Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reassured the Saudis on Thursday that he was seeking no "grand bargain" with Iran, but Riyadh's worries over Washington's long-term commitment to the region underpin its desire for more Arab unity. LURE OF ISLAMIC STATE The second overarching concern for Riyadh is Islamic State. IS has called on Saudis to stage attacks inside the kingdom and some of its sympathizers assaulted a Shi'ite village in November, killing eight. Riyadh fears the group's strong media messaging and appeal to strict Muslim ideology could appeal to disaffected young Saudis and challenge the ruling family's own legitimacy, which partly rests on its religious credentials. But in seeking broader unity across the Arab world on the issue of political Islam, Saudi Arabia must address a deep regional rift. It runs between Sunni states who accept a Muslim Brotherhood presence, such as Qatar and Turkey, and those such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who, like Riyadh, describe it as a terrorist organization. Those differences have come in the way of building a coherent response to regional crises, as attempts to address one problem after another have been diverted into arguments over Islamism. "Saudi Arabia clearly doesn't want to be open to facing too many battles. IS and Iran are the enemy now, everything else can be put on hold," said a Western diplomat in the Gulf. Salman's whirlwind of meetings was presented as a chance for the new monarch to discuss events with the region's leaders in greater detail than was possible when they went to Riyadh to pay respects after the death of Abdullah. But while Salman did not directly push for a new Sunni bloc or lean on states to be more accommodating with those across the Muslim Brotherhood divide, he still opened the possibility of recalibrating relations to allow greater unity. In his meeting with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, for instance, he suggested Riyadh might reinvigorate its relations with other countries, an apparent reference to strengthening ties with Turkey, the Arab diplomat said. But he also reassured Sisi, a close ally of the late Abdullah, that any attempts to undermine Egypt's security from elsewhere represented a red line for Saudi Arabia, and that any new moves Riyadh made would not be at Cairo's expense. RIVAL IDEOLOGY Nobody expects big changes to Saudi Arabia's position on the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement represents an ideological threat to Riyadh's dynastic system of rule, and its use of oaths of allegiance and secret meetings are anathema to the Saudis. The Brotherhood was listed by Riyadh as a terrorist organization a year ago, with membership incurring long prison sentences, and both Western and Arab diplomats, and analysts said there was little prospect its status would change. But Salman is less concerned than was Abdullah about the Brotherhood's role in other parts of the Middle East, such as in Yemen's Islah party or among Syrian rebel groups. He is also more willing to allow the Brotherhood a role outside politics, for example by not stopping preachers affiliated to the movement from making public speeches on religious or social issues. One sign of Salman's more pragmatic approach came during a conference in Mecca last week that brought together top Sunni clerics, including the Saudi grand mufti and the head of Egypt's al-Azhar University, to denounce terrorism. Informed Saudis noted it was hosted by the Muslim World League, a body set up by Riyadh in the 1960s to build an Islamic bloc against radical secular ideologies, and used in the 1980s to bolster Sunnis against revolutionary Iran. Under Abdullah, it fell out of favor partly because of its historical relationship with the Brotherhood, but Salman now seems prepared to use it again as an instrument to build Sunni solidarity. One of the delegates it invited was a senior member of a Doha-based group with close ties to the Brotherhood. The change may partly reflect the personality of Salman, who is less uncompromising than was Abdullah, say Gulf insiders, and who is more willing to use any tools at his disposal to counter bigger threats. All the leaders he met appeared to leave Riyadh confident that their relations with the new king would be strong. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters after his meeting that ties with Saudi Arabia seemed to be improving, Turkey's Hurriyet daily newspaper reported on Wednesday. "My hopes increased that our bilateral relations will reach a much better place," he was quoted as saying. But that did not lead him to be conciliatory towards Egypt, where he said political oppression might cause an explosion - exactly the sort of language that upsets Cairo. (Additional reporting by William Maclean in Dubai and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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