Saudi-YPG Partnership: Implications for Ankara-Riyadh Relations

Amid several sensitive issues, including the Egyptian coup of 2013, the Qatar crisis, and the Jamal Khashoggi saga, bilateral relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have recently deteriorated significantly. Riyadh’s growing partnership with the Kurdish Marxist militia, the YPG, in northern Syria now threatens to further escalate tension in Turkish-Saudi relations to an entirely new level.
Saudi-YPG Partnership Implications for Ankara-Riyadh Relations

The leadership in Ankara sees the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syria-based offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the gravest terror threats to Turkey’s security.

The leadership in Ankara sees the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syria-based offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the gravest terror threats to Turkey’s security. According to many Turks, there are a whole host of foreign governments that have sponsored the YPG for reasons often centering around plans for carving up Turkey territorially along ethno-linguistic lines. In addition to pointing to the U.S., which has openly backed the YPG in Syria, voices in Turkey frequently and angrily accuse the governments of Egypt, France, Israel, Iran, Syria, and Arab Gulf countries (at least in some combination) of sponsoring the YPG in northern Syria.

For years, Turkey’s allegations about Arab Gulf states supporting the YPG have mainly focused on the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Yet in recent months, the Turkish press has started paying greater attention to Saudi-YPG relations, which, along with the Jamal Khashoggi murder case, serve to elevate tensions between Ankara and Riyadh. Such friction in Turkish-Saudi relations has intensified against a backdrop of other issues, ranging from the blockade of Qatar, competition for influence across Africa, the failed Turkish coup plot of 2016, and the fall of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi three years earlier.

On November 20, Yenisafak, a conservative Turkish newspaper that is pro-Justice and Development Party, reported that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had deployed military forces to YPG-controlled territory in northeastern Syria to serve in the U.S.-led coalition.

On November 20, Yenisafak, a conservative Turkish newspaper that is pro-Justice and Development Party, reported that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had deployed military forces to YPG-controlled territory in northeastern Syria to serve in the U.S.-led coalition. Yenisafak has also pointed to other signs of the Saudi-YPG partnership beefing up. The newspaper published an article in June 2017 (five days after the Qatar crisis broke out) that included a photo featuring a portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s founder, behind Saudi, Egyptian, and Emirati officials who were meeting with the YPG in an office.

Four months later, Thamer al-Sabhan, Riyadh’s Minister for Gulf Affairs, visited the Syrian city of Raqqa while under YPG control with the then-U.S. special envoy to the coalition against the Islamist State, Brett McGurk. The two discussed reconstruction efforts in Raqqa and ten months later, in August 2018, Saudi officials pledged $100 million to help reconstruct and stabilize parts of Syria under YPG rule. Two months after that, Riyadh made the payment.

Ultimately, the leadership in Abu Dhabi continues to see Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood offshoots across the region that Ankara backs, as extremely threatening to the UAE and other Gulf states. As the UAE pushes against Ankara’s agenda in Syria (and other Arab League members such as Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan), it appears that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) is bringing Saudi Arabia into greater alignment with the UAE with respect to Turkey.

The UAE and Turkey’s geopolitical rivalry reached the Syrian Kurdish canton of Afrin during Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, launched in January 2018. During that Turkish military campaign in which Ankara toppled the YPG from power in Afrin, the Emirati leadership and major media outlets in the Emirates harshly condemned Operation Olive Branch, accusing Turkish forces of “looting” Afrin in March 2018. The UAE’s media referred to the YPG as a resistance group.

While visiting Egypt in March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) statement about Turkey belonging to a “triangle of evil” along with Iran and Islamist groups was illustrative of MbZ’s influence over the kingdom’s crown prince. Indeed, such rhetoric closely resembled that of his Abu Dhabian counterpart, often referred to as MbS’ mentor.

Doubtless, Saudi Arabia’s strengthening relationship with the YPG must be understood within the framework of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s close alignment on regional issues (notwithstanding several issues of disagreement) in order to counter Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria and other Arab states. On February 11, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash issued a statement about the YPG via Twitter, saying that international concerns about the armed group’s fate were “legitimate” given the YPG’s “pivotal role” in the defeat of ISIS in Syria.

Saudi Arabia strengthening its relationship with the YPG may greatly please the leadership in Abu Dhabi but where will Riyadh’s deepening ties with the PKK-affiliated force lead the already heavily strained Saudi-Turkish relationship? Does this development risk any direct clash between Turkey and the kingdom?

Undoubtedly, Turkey’s press is paying particularly close attention to meetings between the YPG and Saudi military officials. Such media exposure has much potential to significantly increase anti-Saudi sentiment throughout Turkey. This can prove to be particularly dangerous at a time in which the Turkish government is unwilling to drop the Khashoggi case, the Qatar crisis continues with no end in sight against the backdrop of an upcoming potential Turkish military operation against the YPG in northern Syria.

The narrative in Turkey that Saudi Arabia is an enemy is gaining popularity. Such a development highlights how far regional dynamics have shifted since the period preceding Russia’s military intervention in Syria when Ankara and Riyadh worked in tandem as sponsors of Jaish al-Fatah (a.k.a. the Army of Conquest), which was a command structure for Sunni jihadist rebel groups fighting to topple the Damascus regime.

Yet new realities on the ground led to the Turks and Saudis adopting different political priorities, resulting in conflicts of interest. Since 2016, when Turkey essentially came around to accepting that President Bashar al-Assad was unlikely to fall, and Ankara began its reconciliation with Moscow, the quest to eradicate the YPG terror threat (not regime change) became Ankara’s focus in Syria.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia became more aligned with the Trump administration on regional issues, including Iran, while the U.S. president had increased Washington’s support for the YPG earlier in his term as the anti-ISIS campaign was still ongoing, simultaneously heating up tensions in Turkey-U.S. relations.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia became more aligned with the Trump administration on regional issues, including Iran, while the U.S. president had increased Washington’s support for the YPG earlier in his term as the anti-ISIS campaign was still ongoing, simultaneously heating up tensions in Turkey-U.S. relations. At the same time, throughout 2017 and 2018, Turkey made major investments in the Astana process, inevitably entailing deeper coordination between Ankara and Tehran on Syria. In sum, all these complicated developments led to the divergence of Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s interests and threat perceptions in Syria—particularly vis-à-vis the YPG and Iran.

Looking ahead, Riyadh’s ties with the YPG may well serve to create a major crisis in the kingdom’s relations with Turkey that could be far more harmful to bilateral relations than either the Khashoggi murder or the siege of Qatar. There is potential for a major escalation depending on how Saudi Arabia reacts to another Turkish military intervention in Syria that targets the YPG.

For the future of the YPG, it is important to look at the Kremlin’s actions. Via the Astana process, Russia is driving diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict in a way that gives enough international legitimacy to a settlement that leaves Assad in power. To prevent another Turkish-YPG conflict in northern Syria, Moscow is determined to resolve the problems between Turkey and the YPG by integrating the Kurdish force into the Syrian Arab Army and restoring Ankara and Damascus’ diplomatic relations at the highest level.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Russia will succeed. Russia achieving such political goals may prove difficult to imagine for countless reasons. Yet Moscow is determined to work toward these objectives through shrewd diplomacy and a continued military presence in the war-torn Arab country.

In any event, as long as Ankara continues seeing the YPG as an unacceptable terror threat to Turkey, the Saudis may well maintain their links to the PKK-linked Marxist group in order to gain leverage over Syria’s future while pushing back against the expansion of Turkish and Iranian influence in the Levant. Unquestionably, Riyadh’s willingness to make an ally out of the group that threatens Turkey’s national security and vital interests in northern Syria will severely exacerbate tensions between these two powers as they rival each other for a leadership role in the greater Sunni Muslim world.