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Turkey Takes Saudi Side in Embassy Dispute

Walter Russell Mead

Another day, another sign of hardening sectarian battle lines in the Middle East. The New York Times reports:

Turkey said late Thursday that it had summoned the Iranian ambassador to register its objections to reports in the Iranian news media that linked a visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, late last month with the kingdom’s execution of a Shiite cleric.[..]

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released late Thursday: “In a meeting today that took place with the Iranian ambassador at our ministry, we condemned the linking of our president’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia to the executions carried out in the country in articles published on media outlets linked to Iranian official bodies. We asked for such broadcasts to be terminated immediately.”

The diplomatic dust-up dragged Turkey into a crisis that has roiled the Middle East, rattled world financial markets and heightened sectarian tensions, the latest chapter in a longstanding power struggle between the regional players that has played out in the area’s many proxy wars, from Syria to Yemen to Iraq.

The growing specter of Iranian power, boosted by Russian intervention on the Assad side in Syria, is continuing to result in Sunnis warily coming together. Until recently, Qatar and Turkey were openly vying for influence against Saudi Arabia, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian branch of Hamas against Saudi opposition, and opposing the Sisi government in Egypt, despite Saudi support. But Qatar and Turkey both seem to be edging toward the Saudi position in the dispute over the execution of Nimr and the embassy attack in Tehran.

This is not a sign of love and brother reconciliation, but of fear.

It is also a sign of Saudi strategy at work. The Saudis have been working to bring two non-Arab Sunni powers into a coalition against Iran: Turkey and Pakistan. The Saudi foreign minister was in Islamabad Thursday trying to drum up support, but this met with mixed success: the politicians don’t like the idea of taking sides in a dangerous confrontation, and much of public opinion is also jittery. However, as we noted yesterday, on matters of state security, civilian politicians do not have much authority in Pakistan. The real decisions will be made in meetings that journalists and politicians don’t know much about.

So chalk Turkey up as a “get” for the Saudis in this dispute, and Pakistan as a “maybe.” But above all, keep an eye on how, slowly but inexorably, the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian divide is starting to take precendence all other disputes in the Middle East.

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