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‘Neo-Ottoman’ Ambitions in the Post-American Middle East: Stakes for the Gulf
Officially, Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria has been about two major objectives. First, Ankara wants to push the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) further from the Turkish-Syrian border. Second, Turkey’s leadership seeks to establish a “buffer zone” along the international boundary east of the Euphrates from where the Turks can theoretically resettle one to two million Syrian refugees.
Beneath the rhetoric of countering (what Turkey’s government sees as) terrorist threats and addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, Ankara also seeks to increase Turkish influence in the Syrian conflict and the political solution to it, while creating a ‘Turkey-friendly’ order in northern Syria. Further, Ankara wants to bolster the standing of Turkish-backed militias belonging to the Syrian National Army (SNA)—previously known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—while ensuring that no independent Kurdish state can be born in northern Syria.
Impact in the Gulf
Regardless of Ankara’s objectives and true motivations for waging its third military campaign against the YPG since August 2016, Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria—and the Russian response to Operation Peace Spring, which may pave the path for reconciliation between the Turkish and Syrian governments via the Adana Accord of 1998—constitutes a major shift in the region that is being felt in the Gulf in numerous ways.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states (save Qatar and Oman) condemned Operation Peace Spring early on in the campaign. For the Saudi-Emirati axis, the Turkish incursion into northern Syria represents an unsettling development whereby Washington is permitting Ankara to act in the Middle East with a looser hand. Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” agenda, as elites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) see it, represents a significant threat to the wider Arab world. Differences between Turkey/Qatar and the UAE concerning their attitudes toward Muslim Brotherhood offshoots are key factors at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s reasons for viewing Turkey as a dangerous actor. The Emirati-Turkish “proxy war” in Libya exemplifies the extent to which Abu Dhabi and Ankara have become opposing stakeholders in the region’s unresolved wars, as did the Egyptian coup of 2013 and blockade of Qatar four years later.
Following last month’s drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) had to come to terms with Trump’s limited response and the messages that response sent to Riyadh and other GCC capitals. Put simply, largely due to America’s decreased reliance on Gulf oil and the electorate’s war fatigue from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. is not going to go to war with Iran on Riyadh’s behalf. Given the extent to which Trump is focused on securing a second term in 2020, the decision to move American troops out of a certain part of northeast Syria was largely about selling a narrative to the American public about Trump winding down prolonged U.S. military engagements overseas.
Thus, although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may have ‘bet the farm’ on Trump’s presidency beginning in 2017, both Gulf capitals recognize that the American president does not always back up his words with actions. The decision to abandon the U.S.-YPG partnership only reinforced lessons learned from past episodes, not only including the Aramco attacks of last month, but also Trump’s decision to not respond forcefully to the Iranians shooting down a U.S. drone in the Gulf.
GCC states are well aware that alliances and relationships shift amid power vacuums in the region that other states such as Russia are keen to fill. In the capitals of Arab states that have long depended on the U.S. security umbrella, important questions are being raised about their national defense amid a ‘post-America Middle East.’
While the power struggle in northern Syria is complicated with outcomes that are difficult to predict, some geopolitical implications from the GCC states’ vantage point are clear. Abu Dhabi finds itself moving closer to Russia vis-à-vis Syria. The same is true concerning Riyadh.
During President Vladimir Putin’s trips to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi earlier this month, the chaos in northern Syria was a central point of discussions. With the limits of U.S. security guarantees and means of asserting influence in the Middle East increasingly clear, Moscow is continuing to take advantage of Washington’s strategic blunders. The Russians are leveraging U.S. mistakes to move Moscow closer to both Washington’s adversaries such as Iran, as well as the U.S.’ decades-old partners, including all six GCC members.
Managing the Trump Presidency
To be sure, the Arab Gulf monarchies are not seeking to abandon their extremely deep ties with the U.S. In GCC states there is a widespread understanding that for all of the reasons not to trust the U.S. as a reliable partner, no other player in the global arena could be considered (at least any time soon) to be in a position to replace Washington as a security guarantor.
Thus, while recent events in Syria and the Aramco attacks have left Riyadh and Abu Dhabi less confident in the U.S., Washington does not face the danger of an ‘alternative power’ replacing the special role it has for years played in the Arabian Peninsula’s security architecture. During such times of tremendous volatility in the region, officials in Gulf states will see deepening ties with the Pentagon and Congress as helpful, while Trump’s erraticism and perceived abandonment of certain allies in the Middle East unsettle U.S. allies and friends worldwide.
Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been creating significant opportunities for the Russians and others to make their involvement in the regional security architecture increasingly important from a Gulf perspective. Fearful of Ankara’s perceived “Neo-Ottoman” foreign policy, the Saudis and Emiratis will likely seek to work closer with Russia to influence Moscow to play a role in checking Turkish (as well as Iranian) influence in the Levant. In the process, a deeper understanding and ability to see closer to eye-to-eye on the Syria file will likely emerge between the Kremlin and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This has already proven to be especially the case with Abu Dhabi, whose agenda in the region has aligned with Russian interests across numerous wars, not only including in Syria, but also in Yemen. The Kremlin hopes that Saudi Arabia will eventually move in the UAE and Bahrain’s direction in terms of reconciliation with the Damascus regime.
In all probability, Abu Dhabi will apply pressure on Riyadh and other capitals to reaccept the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s government as part of a vision based on countering the position of Turkey and the SNA in northern Syria. According to the former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, Saudi Arabia “could accept, if not necessarily embrace” Assad in order to accommodate Moscow’s interests against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s decreased confidence in America’s leadership. For Russia, these geopolitical shifts have the potential to continue working out neatly as Moscow continues exploiting wedges between Gulf states and their traditional western allies in order to help create a more ‘Russia-friendly’ political order and security landscape in the Levant and Arabian Peninsula.
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
 Kareem Fahim, Karen DeYoung and Seung Min Kim, “Syria Cease-Fire Agreement Lifts Threat of U.S. Sanctions While Letting Turkey Keep Buffer Zone,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2019.
 Samuel Ramani, “How Turkey’s Syria Incursion Could Have a Big Impact on the Gulf,” Al-Monitor, October 22, 2019.
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