Washington’s Troubled Relations with Its Middle East Partners

January 25, 2016

On January 22, 2016 Secretary Kerry addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This is how he started off his remarks on the Iran nuclear deal:
“… It wasn’t so long ago that … Iran was only months away from having enough weapons-grade uranium to build 10 to 12 bombs. We were on the cusp of confrontation – believe me. I can’t tell you how many leaders, when I traveled through certain areas, said, ‘You have to bomb it. That’s the way you will solve this problem.” He then gave a brief account of what had been achieved through the JCPOA and concluded by saying, “My friends, the region is safer. The world is safer.”

The next day, Secretary Kerry stood next to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh for remarks to the press. He did his best to please his hosts and referred to US concerns regarding “some of the activities that Iran is engaged in in other countries” adding some detail. Minister al-Jubeir, responding to a question, said that Iran remains the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. He then played down the importance of the rapid release of us Navy personnel and the prisoner swap.

Even the foregoing is reflective of an uneasy connection. The new Saudi leadership remains engaged in an open-ended war in Yemen stretching the limits of country’s military power. It appears increasingly disturbed with allegations regarding support going from the Kingdom to radical/terrorist groups. The decline in oil prices is imposing restrictions on its handouts. Iran’s ascendancy through the nuclear deal is seen as a setback. Most importantly, all of this is leading to growing concerns regarding internal stability.

It seems that Riyadh is now trying to cope with these challenges through a two-pronged strategy, playing a visible role in managing the Syrian conflict and containing Iran, the two being closely linked. And Washington has no other option than exerting a moderating influence and helping to find a peaceful solution to the Yemen conflict because the alternative to status quo in Riyadh is chaos.

Turkey is another case. Until some years ago she was expected to serve as a model for the Middle East. Turkish internal politics, however, have come to be characterized by increasing polarization and disagreement on the fundamentals of democracy. The government no longer considers the separation of powers as the cornerstone of democracy but sees it as an obstacle to “effective government”. And, our misguided foray into the Syrian conflict has confronted us with extremely serious internal and external security challenges as well as strains in our relations with regional countries, Russia, the EU and the US.

On his recent visit to İstanbul, Vice President Biden felt compelled to underline the importance of freedom of expression. He said, “The more Turkey succeeds, the stronger the message sent to the entire Middle East and parts of the world who are only beginning to grapple with the notion of freedom.” His joint press conference with PM Davutoğlu was reflective of differences. The press conference scheduled to follow his meeting with President Erdoğan was cancelled. And, this is what Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a question-and-answer session in Davos, on Friday:
“I would like Turkey to do more. By history, by geography, Turkey is in a pivotal position here. Now, Turkey’s a long-time friend of ours, it’s a NATO ally. We’re strongly in support of them, we stand with it in terms of defense of its own territory. But the reality is it shares a big border with Iraq and Syria, which border has been porous to foreign fighters, Klaus, going in both directions and I think the
Turks can do more to fight ISIL. They’re helping us fight ISIL by, for example, hosting our aircraft in Turkey. I’m grateful for that, but I think they can do more. So I — they’re on the list of — and I’m sorry to say it’s a — it’s — it’s not a small list, of countries that I think could make contributions that are distinctive, unique and necessary to the defeat of ISIL.”

In a nutshell, US’ relations with two of its major Middle East partners appear to be problematic but cooperation, despite difficulties, remains the only option. For Saudi Arabia Iran’s ascendancy and for Turkey the recent downturn in relations with Russia are likely to carry increasing weight in relations with Washington. Thus, while public discourse will continue to stress long-standing bonds of friendship, alliance and common resolve, behind-closed-doors dialogue will focus upon overcoming considerable differences over Iraq, Syria, Yemen, sectarianism and combating terrorism. There will be tension, frustration and disappointment. But as President Obama had said, the US will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with the US on America’s core interests. And no doubt Riyadh and Ankara have their misgivings about Washington’s regional policies and calls for reform.

Regarding US-Saudi Arabia relations, Mike Rogers, a former Republican congressman had said, “They understand that they have to have us, and we understand that we have to have them.” And, some time ago, former Ambassador to Ankara Frank Ricciardone said that Turkey and the US have “shared interests” rather than “shared values” and that we are “kind of stuck with each other”.

The Government has put Turkey into a tight corner. But there is a way out. All we need to do for our very national interests, beyond worries about our relations with the West, the region and even the world, is to return to the path of democratic reform and cut down our involvement in the Syria conflict. It is that simple.

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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