It is no secret that Erdogan and King Abdallah adopted contrasting policies on a number of regional issues, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the events that followed. More often than not the two men found themselves on opposite sides in relation to the Syrian conflict, the crisis in Egypt, the war against Daesh and in addressing the challenges of political Islam. At the height of regional turmoil, especially between 2011 and 2015, Amman opted to follow a moderate and pragmatic approach while Ankara embraced a unilateral, defiant and, in the view of many, impulsive positions.
But while the two sides differed politically on key issues, they were keen to maintain strong economic and cultural ties. The total value of Turkish exports to Jordan amounted to $300 million, while its imports were about $50m in the first five months of this year. Both leaders have made sure that their divergent views did not affect the long and warm relations that connected the people of the two countries.
For years Erdogan was admired by many Jordanians, especially those who support political Islam. Others, however, cautioned against Erdogan’s regional ambitions and his attempt to revive Turkey’s Ottoman legacy. To this day he remains a controversial figure, seen by some as a staunch anti-Israel and anti-western Islamic leader, but by others as someone who is dismantling Turkey’s secular and democratic foundations.
The future of the Syrian conflict is perhaps the issue that both leaders needed to focus on the most during their talks. Turkey’s approach to the crisis along its southern borders has often backfired, resulting in tension between Ankara and Washington over the role of Syria’s Kurds and leading to a contentious military incursion into northern Syria last year that has yet to achieve its goals. Erdogan’s evasive style has led to a diplomatic standoff with Europe over the flow of Syrian refugees and to a fragile alliance between him and the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
For Jordan, a more realistic and resilient policy toward the Syrian regime, moderate rebel groups and southern Syria has finally paid off with the adoption of a US-Russian-Jordanian agreement last month to enforce a de-escalation zone in Daraa that would serve the immediate interests of all parties. So far the truce in the south has been successful and while it remains a transitional process that requires further deliberations, it now represents a positive model that Moscow is trying to replicate in other parts of Syria.
Furthermore, the agreement includes assurances that Iran-backed militias will not be allowed to take positions close to the Jordanian borders. It should pave the way for the re-opening of border crossings between Syria and Jordan and the repatriation of Syrian refugees in the kingdom at a later stage.
King Abdallah and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have disagreed on several key regional issues, but their talks this week are an opportunity to explore their many shared interests.
The two leaders realize that recent developments in Syria, both on the ground and in influential capitals, have changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Both countries are involved in the Astana process — Jordan as an observer and Turkey as a key partner — and both have influence over different Syrian rebel groups. With a crucial round of Geneva talks expected to be held in November, the two sides can contribute to efforts to unite the Syrian opposition and push for a political settlement that would end the six-year-old conflict. Erdogan’s position on the fate of Syrian president Bashar Assad has always been more uncompromising than Jordan’s. The Amman summit may change Ankara’s attitude.
In addition, King Abdallah – a fierce opponent of Daesh and other terrorist groups that are perverting Islam — and Erdogan discussed ways to coordinate anti-terror strategy in Syria and Iraq, especially in light of Daesh’s major losses in both countries. Amman has been in the forefront in combating religious radicalization and the distortion of Islamic values. Both leaders can do a lot in fortifying the image of a moderate and tolerant Islam.
Another area of possible cooperation and coordination is Iraq, with which Jordan enjoys a strong relationship while ties between Ankara and Baghdad have often stood on shaky ground. With common challenges facing Erdogan and the Iraqi prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi, particularly over the planned Iraqi Kurdish referendum, Amman can help iron out differences between the two leaders. Relations with Gulf countries and the challenge that Iran poses to regional security are also of common interest.
One common issue on which the two men are in agreement is Palestine. Amman is grateful for Erdogan’s support of Jordan’s position during the recent crisis over Al-Aqsa and its role in protecting Muslim and Christian holy sites in the Old City. Both countries will be using their regional and international standing to put pressure on Israel to prevent a reoccurrence of Israeli unilateral measures in East Jerusalem.
As important as the visit is for Jordan, Erdogan, who is embarking on a regional trip and will go to the US in September, may be using the tour to reset Turkey’s foreign policy amid changing geopolitical realities.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.