After the First Gulf War, coordination between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria played a key stabilising and mediating role in the region. Today, Turkey can fill the gap left by Damascus.
A decade has passed since the Syrian revolution, and the situation has never been worse. The power game among regional and international players has only deepened the gaps within Syrian society and still has not served the interest of the Syrian people in achieving political transition. Despite the agreement by all stakeholders on this vital point, they are still far from the realisation of a political peace and transition deal.
The US, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Iran, the Gulf states and Egypt, all are involved on one level or another in the balance of power game. Although Syria is not the only field for this game, it does surpass other fields with its importance, as Syria used to be a player itself. Today, the gap resulting from the loss of Syria’s role in the region has yet to be filled.
Historical ‘triangle of stability’
The Middle East has never been completely stable in recent history. More than 80 armed conflicts took place between 1918, the end of World War I, and 2011, the Arab uprisings. While the Ottoman Empire was an essential player until WWI, after its war of independence, Turkey turned its attention towards building the new Turkish nation. Ankara somewhat stepped away from the conflict zone, and linked itself to the Western world, focusing on internal challenges in stabilising its economy and political system. This foreign policy has changed in the last two decades, with a different Turkish approach to the region.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its liberation by an international coalition led by the US and the kick-off of the peace process in the Middle East, the region witnessed a sort of relative stability, driven by the close coordination between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The coordination between these three states did not prevent heated conflicts from taking place in the region, though it did contain its outcomes and managed to keep diplomatic links and channels of mediation open.
Several examples support this hypothesis: the Lebanese post-civil war era, and the April Understanding that was brokered between Lebanon and Israel in the aftermath of Israeli aggression against Lebanon 1996; and the Turkish - Syrian tensions and the Egyptian mediation that resulted in the Adana Agreement. In other words, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria’s close coordination managed to keep regional conflicts escalating by keeping the political dynamics alive.
At the time, Turkey was preoccupied with its internal politics, and concentrating more on the needed economic and political reforms for European Union accession.
Now that Syria is out of the game, there is a need for a new triangle of stability. Turkey has secured its role on the top of the triangle; however, the players who can fill the other two angles are still unclear.
In Libya, which has regional dynamics similar, if not identical, to the ones in Syria, it wasn’t hard for Turkish decision-makers to realise that cooperation with yesterday’s rivals could bring better results; the same applies to the concerned rivals. Libya was a place for experimenting with a new approach, and results were promising.
Afterwards, steps towards normalising relations with Egypt enhanced the possibilities of re-stabilising the region. It might be the right time to take similar steps towards Saudi Arabia, and a new triangle of balance may emerge. A Turkey-Saudi-Egypt stability triangle could have a better influence in the region, as these countries have common interests rooted in stability as a concept and practice.
Furthermore, such a triangle is less likely to be challenged by regional powers compared to other stabilisation scenarios. Neither Israel nor Iran will warmly welcome such cooperation. However, both will also not perceive it as hostile, as Turkey has good relations with both Iran and Israel. Iranians will welcome a kind of a Turkish influence on both Egypt and Saudi Arabia that will ease the tensions between them, while Israel will see this triangle as a containment mechanism of Iran's hegemonic efforts in the region. Israel’s security concerns could be addressed promptly, while Iran’s vital interests can be accepted, yet also fully contained.
At this point, Russia will want nothing more than a good payback for its intervention, and a deal in Syria that lifts the European and American sanctions, will allow for enough funds to flow in and help with the economic recovery.
Turkey has taken some steps recently towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the latter two welcomed this rapprochement. A senior Turkish delegation visited Egypt to normalise diplomatic relations and improve bilateral ties. Furthermore, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Saudi Arabia seeking to enhance relations between the two countries after relatively long tension between them.
Naturally, there are several challenges to the creation of such a triangle: the lack of will among the three countries towards further cooperation, fuelled by the recent history of mistrust between them; in addition to the possible counter moves and confrontation efforts by other regional powers who may be threatened by such rapprochement.
What is most necessary for the success of such a cooperation triangle, is that none of the parties let minor internal politics calculations hinder the driving force that these three countries can bring tighter.
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