On Saturday October 15th, representatives from the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey will meet in Lausanne to discuss the future of their strategy on Syria and the Islamic State (IS). This summit will be an important meeting between the U.S. and Russia, who have increasingly criticized one another following the breakdown of the ceasefire agreement. The meeting that will set the tenor for Lausanne, however, will be happening on Thursday, when Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu meets with the foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh. This meeting has the potential to align Turkey and Saudi Arabia- to the detriment of the U.S. and Russia’s negotiating ability on Saturday.
Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have voiced their desire to move away from the United States’ weakening leadership in the region, with multiple incidents in the past month eroding goodwill among the two countries. America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is already tense; many Saudi leaders have recently threatened backlash for Congress’s passage of a bill allowing 9/11 victims and their families to sue the Kingdom.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been using anti-Western rhetoric to bolster his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly after the July coup attempt. Shifting blame away from domestic causes of the attempt, President Erdoğan accused exiled former-ally Fethullah Gülen of planning the coup, and has demanded that the United States extradite him. Additionally, many in Turkey, particularly within the AKP, have expressed outrage at Hillary Clinton’s statement during the Sunday debate that she would support arming the Kurds in the fight against IS. Alongside Turkey’s growing distrust of America, President Erdoğan has made efforts to improve relations with Russia and Iran. Despite having directly opposed Iranian objectives in Syria for the past few years, Erdoğan met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in August. The two countries have since agreed to collaborate more closely on Syria.
Similarly, Turkey has been working more closely with Russia in the past months, apologizing in June for shooting down a Russian jet while Putin makes stronger overtures to Erdoğan. Atlantic Council fellow Aaron Stein notes that this relationship remains complicated, and that Turkey’s apparent cooperation may be based off a desire to mitigate conflict rather than genuine shared interests in the region. For now, Turkish-Russian cooperation remains primarily focused on energy and economic matters, but these deals have the potential to lay the foundation for future collaboration that would severely constrain the United States’ leverage with Turkey.
Thursday’s meeting between Turkey and the GCC will primarily focus on collective security matters and combatting terrorism, but comes as part of a broader thrust for Turkish partnership with the Gulf states. In September, Turkey began a push for a free trade agreement with the GCC. Turkish troops also engaged in exercises with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman earlier this year as part of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). The IMAFT serves as a pro-Sunni alternative to the American coalition fighting the Islamic State, while also seeking to restrict Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s Sunni leanings have grown dramatically under President Erdoğan, who has pushed the once-secular nation to an ever more sectarian state. This sectarianism appeared in Erdoğan’s verbal attacks on Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Haider Abadi, reflecting a tenuous relationship between allies in the fight against IS. That Turkey would find its way to the Saudi-led IMAFT at this moment seems in many ways inevitable. As its relationship with the U.S. stagnates, as it pushes for a stronger sectarian identity, and as it seeks broader engagement with countries in the region, Turkey finds a near-perfect fit in Salman’s IMAFT. The Saudis are also happy taking in Turkey, hoping to pull them away from liaisons with the Iranians and keep Iran isolated.
What remains to be seen, however, is how effectively and how long Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be able to maintain their cooperation. Both countries envision themselves as the political and religious leaders of the Middle East, commanding their own power independent of U.S. or Russian support. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have a considerable ability to dictate the future of Syria and the fight against IS, if their vying for preeminence does not tear them apart first. Turkey’s meeting with the GCC Thursday, along with Saturday’s meeting in Lausanne, will be the first barometric readings from the as-yet untested partnership.