by Giorgio Cafiero
When they view Aden, Aleppo, Basra, Gaza, Ghouta, Mosul, and blockaded Qatar, Turks see grave injustices suffered by people in Arab lands once ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Such a perspective informs a popular Turkish narrative that there would be more peace and social justice in the Arab world if only the Ottoman Empire still existed. To be sure, this belief is not evidence that Turkish leaders are attempting to resurrect the Ottoman Empire. Nonetheless, on the “Arab Street” and in many Western circles a common perception is that Ankara’s foreign policy is indeed “neo-Ottoman.” Furthermore, Turkey’s military footprint in three Arab League members—Qatar, Somalia, and Sudan—coupled with Ankara’s unilateral military intervention in two others—Syria and Iraq—has also led many Arab officials to view President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy through a similar lens.
Regardless of whether “neo-Ottoman” is an appropriate adjective for Ankara’s foreign policy, Turkey undoubtedly continues to conduct an ambitious foreign policy in the Middle East under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This is particularly true in Syria, where Ankara is working with Moscow and Tehran to reach a settlement to the crisis that suits Turkey’s perceived interests. Yet not all in the Arab world welcome this increasingly assertive Turkish role in the Middle East. The Arab state leading the opposition to Turkey’s muscular foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—listed the removal of Turkey’s base in Qatar as one of their conditions for lifting the blockade on Doha underscored Abu Dhabi’s determination to remove any Turkish military presence in the Arabian Peninsula.
From the Emirati perspective, Turkey’s support for Islamist movements and organizations—namely the Muslim Brotherhood—has fanned the flames of extremism in Arab countries where power vacuums and bloody conflicts have provided terrorist organizations opportunities to gain influence. In recent years, the UAE has driven anti-Turkish discourse in Washington, DC. In mid-2017, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, stated that the majority of American citizens failed to comprehend Turkey and “the long-term threat it poses to most of us.” Egypt and Saudi Arabia have joined Abu Dhabi in opposing Turkey’s agenda in the Middle East, especially due to Ankara’s positions on the Egyptian military’s takeover in 2013, the Libyan civil war, Gaza’s political landscape, and the Qatar crisis.
The Afrin Factor
Once the Turkish military entered Syria’s Afrin region last January, Emirati diplomats and media outlets strongly condemned Turkey. The UAE has seen Operation Olive Branch as not only threatening Syria but also the greater Arab world. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs reacted to Turkey’s intervention in Afrin by speaking of the need for Arab states to “build and restore the concept of Arab national security on a realistic and contemporary basis.” Throughout Operation Olive Branch, UAE-based outlets reported on Turkey’s alleged looting, pillaging, and other crimes in the predominantly Kurdish enclave.
On March 10, the UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, tweeted, “It is no secret that Arab-Turkish relations aren’t in their best state…In order to return to balance, Ankara has to respect Arab sovereignty and deal with its neighbors with wisdom and rationality.” That month Turkey’s foreign ministry responded by accusing Abu Dhabi’s chief diplomat of attacking Turkey with a smear campaign and emphasizing Turkey’s “strong historical and exceptional ties with the Arab world,” specifically referencing Jerusalem.
While Turkey’s military was seizing control of Afrin in March, the UAE’s minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation was visiting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his foreign minister in Cairo. In the Egyptian capital, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed referred to Turkey, Iran, and Israel as the three non-Arab states most undermining Arab interests. He pointed specifically to Syria as a hotspot where the UAE must improve coordination with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Similar rhetoric came from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) that same month when he, while also in Egypt, stated that Turkey, Iran, and radical Islamist groups constitute a ”triangle of evil” and accused Erdogan of seeking to restore the Ottoman Empire.
In turn, the Turkish press has accused the UAE of supporting Kurdish terrorism in northern Syria. Yeni Safak (a conservative Turkish daily closely linked to Erdogan) alleged that Abu Dhabi has been sponsoring the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey targeted in its Afrin operations. These allegations were made against the backdrop of common claims in Turkey’s media that the UAE had a hand in the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Yeni Safak has also maintained that the UAE and Syria’s regime cooperated in 2014 and 2015, with Abu Dhabi providing Damascus intelligence as to the whereabouts of “the most prominent anti-US Syrian opposition leaders,” which “paved the way for Daesh and [the PKK] terrorists to advance in opposition-held territories.”
On May 29, Emirati officials, along with their Saudi and Jordanian counterparts, visited Kurdish land in Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (a coalition of armed groups that the YPG dominates) and met with YPG figures at Qamishli. Such a visit only served to further stoke Ankara’s suspicions of a UAE-YPG alliance aimed at weakening Turkey.
Superpower Geopolitics and the Emirati-Turkish Rivalry in Syria
Today in Afrin, where peace has yet to be secured six months after Turkey defeated the YPG, the Turks are now in a quagmire, as explained by journalist Borzou Daragahi. Ankara now wants to insert itself between the United States and Russia to afford the Turks greater leverage in influencing developments in Syria. Yet Turkish officials see how a deal on Syria between Washington and Moscow could severely undermine such prospects. As neither Russia nor the United States sees the YPG through the Turkish government’s lens, Ankara is highly fearful of Moscow and Washington jointly pressuring Turkey to withdraw from territory in northern Syria that it secured earlier this year.
Particularly alarming to Turkish officials are reports of the Assad regime and the YPG holding discussions about a power-sharing agreement. In addition, the possibility of the Kurdish militia integrating into the Syrian Arab Army during the regime’s offensive to take back Idlib province from Turkish-backed Sunni Islamist forces represents a major threat to Ankara’s interests. Such a development could institutionalize the YPG’s role in Syria’s volatile security landscape with long-term implications for the security of Turkey’s southern border.
Ultimately, for the UAE, Afrin represents a frontline in the struggle against Turkish expansionism with respect to the Arab world. Abu Dhabi officials and Emirati media outlets have amplified their opposition to Ankara’s campaign in the Syrian Kurdish enclave, earning the Emiratis greater soft-power influence among certain Kurds, albeit at the expense of the UAE’s relations with Ankara. Much as the UAE made investments in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 2000s after Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Emirates may envision a future Syria in which the YPG becomes a permanent part of the country’s political landscape and a pillar of its (in)security architecture. Turkish-backed armed Islamist factions in Afrin, including Ferqa 55, Jabha al-Shamiye, Faylaq al-Sham, Sultan Mourad, and Ahrar al-Sharqiye, represent threats to the secular model that the UAE would like to see in Syria and the rest of the Arab world, while serving to potentially further deepen Qatar’s influence in the Levant at the ATQ’s expense.
UAE leaders view both the Iranian-backed Assad regime and its armed Islamist enemies, which received support from Turkey and other Arab Gulf monarchies, as threats to their long-term interests in Syria. Consequently, Abu Dhabi has never been as involved as Riyadh or Doha in supporting any sides of the Syrian conflict. In April, Sputnik News reported on Gargash’s comments regarding Abu Dhabi’s Syria policy while speaking at the Arab Thought Foundation’s FIKR16 Conference in Dubai:
Our position on the Syrian crisis is very clear: a few years ago we had a choice — to support Bashar Assad or the opposition, which was joined by jihadists and even many terrorist elements, and we chose to be somewhere between. We confirm the need for a political solution in Syria. It is impossible to achieve stability in this country through a military solution.
Angry at Turkey for its role in helping Qatar circumvent the Saudi/UAE-led blockade, and nervous about Turkey’s geopolitical and economic gains in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, the UAE would welcome a U.S.-Russia deal that pressures Turkey to pull out of northern Syria, and that positions the YPG as a secular, non-Iranian-aligned buffer against the expansion of Turkish influence. At this juncture, it would appear logical for the Emiratis to demonstrate to both Washington and Moscow their strong support for cooperation between both superpowers—which the Emiratis pushed at a meeting in the Seychelles in early 2017 shortly before the Trump administration came to office—in pursuit of a solution to the Syrian war that seeks to scale back Iranian influence and also prevent Turkey from becoming a long-term stakeholder in Syria.
The Turkish-Emirati rivalry must be seen within the context of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 against the backdrop of a relative decline in U.S. hegemony in the turbulent Middle East. Having both allied closely with the U.S.-led anti-Communist camp throughout the Cold War, Turkey and the UAE have emerged as competitors for influence in the Arab world following the AKP’s ascendance in 2002. Officials in Ankara saw the region’s political openings in 2011 as a valuable opportunity to spread Turkey’s influence via Islamists such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, Libya’s Justice and Construction Party, Tunisia’s Ennahdha, Palestine’s Hamas, and Yemen’s al-Islah. In contrast, the leadership in Abu Dhabi equated all forms of the Muslim Brotherhood with terrorism.
Today, across the Maghreb, Arabian Peninsula, and Levant, Turkey and the UAE are struggling to advance their respective interests, which seem to clash with increasing frequency. Until peacefully resolved, the multifaceted battle for the future of Afrin is set to be a contest between Ankara and Abu Dhabi, among other Middle Eastern capitals too. Tragically, the people of Afrin, whose human rights are being violated by both Turkish-sponsored groups and the foreign-backed YPG, will continue to suffer in the process.