Turkey, Saudi Arabia Strive for Sunni Leadership

Mar 30, 2015 | 09:16 GMT

The Turks and Saudis Vie for Sunni Leadership
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Saudi King Salman (R).

(Mohamed Abdiwahab/Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)


With Iran on a path toward normalizing relations with the United States and the United States intent on reducing its burden in the Middle East, the responsibility of keeping Iranian ambitions in check has fallen to the Sunni heavyweights in the region: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. In leading Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, Saudi Arabia clearly moved into the spotlight as a leader of the Sunni Arab world willing to back rhetoric with action in countering Iran. Turkey, meanwhile, has been more reserved in challenging Tehran, sticking to subtle methods such as backing Islamist rebel forces in Syria and deepening its economic footprint in Iraqi Kurdistan while working directly with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

But Turkey is starting to feel overshadowed by Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, Turkey does not want to be a partner to Saudi Arabia, much less one of several partners in a Saudi-led coalition. It wants to assume the leadership mantle itself. On the other hand, Turkey's highly polarized political environment makes it difficult for Ankara to engage in risky military action beyond its borders, reinforcing the perception that Saudi Arabia is the one taking action while Turkey stays on the sidelines.

Each country has a different approach to limiting Iran's influence, and neither can avoid a conversation with Tehran....

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