The neo-Ottomanism in Turkish foreign policy which is based on the “strategic depth” doctrine of Erdogan’s old ally and current rival Ahmet Davutoglu has pitted Turkey against other regional and international powers over the past decade in a wide range of crises and cases, particularly in the Arab world.
Meanwhile, one of the most important regional cases in which Turkey has been preparing the ground for a more active role for itself over the past year is the Yemeni crisis. One of Turkey’s most important steps in this regard has been the acceptance of hosting the leaders of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, such as Abdul Majid al-Zandani and Mohammad al-Yadumi. To be more precise, Istanbul in the recent years has become a favorite destination for most of Yemen’s Islah Party leaders.
In mid-June last year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring organization in London, released a document stating that the Turkish intelligence service in the Syrian town of Afrin had set up an operations room to transfer Syrian mercenaries to take part in the Yemeni war. Turkey has previously been accused of transporting Syrian terrorists to the wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
In other evidence of Turkey’s desire to play a greater role in the developments in Yemen, Yasin Aktay, an adviser to Erdogan and one of his closest associates, wrote an article for the ruling party Justice and Development Party’s newspaper Yeni Sefak in November last year wondering if Turkey will take action to “save Yemen from the decisive storm” in a reference to the codename of the Saudi-led operation against Yemen. The article was published by all websites supporting the Turkish government.
Although the above-mentioned evidence indicates that Turkey is trying to play a role in the developments in Yemen in competition with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a completely opposite trend in recent days, the media reported that Riyadh asked Ankara to participate in the Yemeni developments against Sana’a which is held by the revolutionary forces represented by Ansarullah Movement.
Now the question is what is the Saudi motivation to incorporate Turkey in Yemen developments? How will Ankara respond to the Saudi demand? Can the two, as bitter rivals in the regional developments, have a sustainable alliance in Yemen?
Erdogan’s economic and geopolitical goals
Despite supporting the anti-Yemeni Arab coalition in 2015, Turkey refrained from direct involvement in the military operations. As the Ankara-Riyadh differences grew over the past year, the Turkish leaders stepped up their criticism against the Arab coalition for causing a huge humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
However, things have been changing lately and now Turkey has economic and geopolitical reasons to change its mind.
First, such factors as the regional competition which led to Western sanctions and also boycott of the Turkish products in some Arab countries, along with the coronavirus outbreak, dealt hard blows to the Turkish economy. In municipality elections in 2019, the AKP lost Istanbul after long years, in a signal of the popular discontent with the economic conditions and policies of the ruling party. Erdogan and his party know that they are standing on a shaky foundation in the next elections. So, one reason for helping the Saudis in Yemen is to pave the way for end of the Turkish goods boycott in the Persian Gulf Arab states.
Second, by boosting the Yemeni branch of Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey intends to open a new front against the Saudi-Emirati coalition. Such a front would efficiently serve the aim to damage them due to its geographic closeness to the two Arab monarchies. At the same time, it will increase Ankara’s bargaining power in other regional cases in which it stands against the two Arab actors.
Maintaining the Brotherhood’s weight in the developments is important for Turkey. Of the two important Brotherhood bases in Yemen, Socotra and Ma’rib, Socotra is now in the hands of forces close to the UAE, and Ma’rib is on the verge of being liberated by Ansarullah. The Muslim Brotherhood is also seeking Turkey’s support for fear of losing control of southern Yemen regions like Shabwa province that is rich with oil and gas reserves.
Although the Islah party, like other groups allied to the resigned President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, sees Saudi Arabia the main backer in Yemen war, it seems that Islah Party sees it unavoidable to pick a new supporter as it sees the Saudi defeats and Ansarullah advances. Therefore, military intervention by Turkey is regarded as the key option to restore Islah’s place in the equations.
Turkish secret logistical support against anti-Sana’a
Turkey’s direct involvement in the Yemeni crisis has so far been in the form of logistical support to the Brotherhood and providing information on the military movements of rivals under the auspices of humanitarian and relief work like the activities led by the Turkish Red Crescent. Earlier, Saudi-affiliated media reported that Ankara, with the help of Qatar, was sending drones and military advisers to help Islah’s militias in the war against the southerners in Shabwa.
On the other hand, Turkey plans growth in its drone sales to Saudi Arabia. Reports say that after the US said it stopped its support to the Saudi aggression in Yemen, Turkey began providing the kingdom with Karayel surveillance and Bayraktar assault drones.
Also, it is also not unexpected that in the behind-the-scenes agreements between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Ankara’s experience in the mass transfer of terrorists involved in the Syrian war to other parts, this time in the Yemeni war, will be ordered by President Recept Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Undoubtedly, given the strong international stance against the Saudis and the previous US government as the cause of the great humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Turkey’s political support for the Saudis will not be due to its many consequences. If Turkey decides to step in the Yemeni war against Sana’a, it will mainly focus on covert military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the fugitive Mansour Hadi.
Shaky and unsustainable alliance
The Saudi-Turkish partnership in Yemen is a fruit of short-term motivations like the Turkish need to de-escalate with the Saudis and the Riyadh’s need to save Ma’rib province, rather than being driven by a strategic logic.
The cooperation with Turkey will have an increasingly negative impact on Saudi Arabia’s relations with the UAE in the Yemeni war. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, no doubt, see Turkey’s presence in Yemen as a threat to their geopolitical interests in the Peninsula after Syria and Libya conflicts experiences. Turkey’s strategic goal behind entry to Yemen war is not just to save Islah Party from defeat in the north but also stand as a backrest for the party instead of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The Yemen war is different from all the proxy battles Turkey has ever engaged in over the past years in Syria, Libya, and freshly Karabakh. The Yemenis have successfully passed toughest six years under unceasing bombardment by the armed-to-the-teeth Saudi military which also enjoys arms and logistics backing of the Western powers and battleground assistance from African mercenaries.
Therefore, both in terms of bilateral strategic goals and also the possible partnership, an Ankara-Riyadh coalition is doomed to collapse. Meanwhile, the party incurring the biggest detriments would be Ankara, and that is because Erdogan— after losing his credit in the Muslim world for normalization of ties with Israelis just contrary to his claims of support to the Palestinian cause— would sacrifice the relatively good relations with the Iran-led Axis of Resistance to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s passing efforts to escape the defeat in Yemen.