UAE diplomat: Arabs won’t be led by Turkey – Erdogan calls Assad a terrorist

RIYADH: Saudi King Salman (right) welcomes Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim yesterday. — AFP

RIYADH/DUBAI/TUNIS: Saudi King Salman and Turkey’s premier yesterday discussed boosting ties and the status of Jerusalem, in a first high-level meeting since the US controversially recognized the city as Israel’s capital. Firm US ally Riyadh and NATO member Ankara have both slammed President Donald Trump’s Dec 6 decision to upend decades of careful policy by Washington. But the Saudis only sent a low-level representative to a conference of Muslim nations on the issue hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, amid signs of strains in their relations.

The Saudi SPA agency said King Salman received Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Riyadh and discussed “means of boosting bilateral ties and developments in the region,” without providing details. Yildirim’s office in Ankara said the status of Jerusalem and supporting the Palestinians were discussed at the meeting. “The importance of the status of Jerusalem was emphasized and that the whole Islamic world should act with unity to protect the rights of our Palestinian brothers,” the office said citing Yildirim. He also said that they discussed bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, “one of the most important countries in the Gulf and the Middle East”.

Ties between the sides soured following the 2013 ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, but warmed after King Salman’s accession to the throne eighteen months later. However, analysts say there are signs ties are being tested again as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shaken up the kingdom and amassed power. Turkish officials have avoided public criticism of Saudi Arabia but pro-government press have stepped up attacks on the kingdom, especially over its strong alliance with Trump.

Erdogan last week also lashed out at the powerful foreign minister of Saudi’s chief regional ally the UAE after he retweeted a social media post critical of the early 20th century Ottoman governor of Madinah. But a senior UAE diplomat said yesterday the Arab world would not be led by Turkey, the Gulf state’s first comment on Ankara since the quarrel broke out last week over the retweet that Erdogan called an insult.

Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, said there was a need for Arab countries to rally around the “Arab axis” of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “The sectarian and partisan view is not an acceptable alternative, and the Arab world will not be led by Tehran or Ankara,” he wrote on his official Twitter page.

Last week, Turkey summoned the charge d’affaires at the UAE embassy in Ankara, after UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahayan shared a tweet that accused Turkish troops of looting the holy city of Madinah a century ago. Erdogan himself lashed out: “Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery … What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” the Turkish leader said at an awards ceremony.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu newspaper reported on Saturday that Turkey planned to rename the street where the UAE embassy is located in Ankara after Fakhreddin Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman Turkish troops at Madinah in 1916. Madinah, the holiest site in Islam after Makkah, is now in Saudi Arabia. The UAE sees itself as a bulwark against political forms of Islam, and views Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted ruling AK party as a supporter of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which it opposes.

Meanwhile, Erdogan yesterday called Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad a terrorist and said it was impossible for Syrian peace efforts to continue with him. Syria’s foreign ministry quickly responded by accusing Erdogan of himself supporting terrorist groups fighting Assad in Syria’s civil war. Turkey has demanded the removal of Assad from power and backed rebels fighting to overthrow him, but it has toned down its demands since it started working with Assad’s allies Russia and Iran for a political resolution.

“Assad is definitely a terrorist who has carried out state terrorism,” Erdogan told a televised news conference with his Tunisian counterpart Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis. “It is impossible to continue with Assad. How can we embrace the future with a Syrian president who has killed close to a million of his citizens?” he said, in some of his harshest comments for weeks.

Though Turkey has long demanded Assad’s removal, it is now more focused in Syria on the threat from Islamist militants and Kurdish fighters it considers allies of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who it says have formed a “terror corridor” on its southern border. Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara views as an extension of the outlawed PKK which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since the 1980s, cannot be invited to Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

The YPG is the main element in a force that Washington has assisted with training, weapons, air support and help from ground advisers in the battle against Islamic State. That U.S. support has angered Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington. Despite its differences with Russia and Iran, Turkey has worked with the two powers in the search for a political solution in Syria.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran also brokered a deal to set up and monitor a “de-escalation zone” to reduce fighting between insurgents and Syrian government forces in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province. “We can’t say (Assad) will handle this. It is impossible for Turkey to accept this. Northern Syria has been handed over as a terror corridor. There is no peace in Syria and this peace won’t come with Assad,” Erdogan said.

Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Erdogan “continues to misdirect Turkish public opinion with his usual froth in an attempt to absolve himself of the crimes which he has committed against the Syrian people through advancing support to the various terrorist groups in Syria”. – Agencies