The Islamic world has once again been dragged into Sunni-Shiite tensions and conflict. A political and social conflict between the Sunni and Shia sects exists from Lebanon to Bahrain, from Yemen to Iraq, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and Syria. Despite Ankara’s recent messages that Turkey is opposed to sectarian conflicts, the fact that Turkey has followed a Sunni-centric foreign policy in this realpolitik-defined international environment has resulted in Shia resentment. This paper will touch upon the [situation in the] aforementioned areas of conflict, and on Turkey’s place in the midst of this polarization.
Sunni-Shiite Conflict Zones
2012 started off with increasingly intense clashes in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. [These clashes] were accompanied by bomb attacks that targeted the Shia community in Iraq. Clashes have erupted between Shia rebels and Sunni Salafist gunmen in the northern Yemeni province of Saada. The sectarian dimension of the Syrian crisis has been acknowledged by all analysts. Moreover the political struggle in Bahrain is one between Shiites and Sunnis, while the Shia minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has taken to the streets to demand its political rights. Meanwhile, tension persists in Lebanon between the Shia community - represented by Hezbollah - and the Sunni groups represented by [Saad al] Hariri. It is clear that sectarian strife is haunting several countries throughout the Islamic world.
Nevertheless the political dimension of this sectarian question should be emphasized. Instead of simply attributing the current conflict to sectarian differences, it is important to understand that these divisions are often exploited for political purposes. The cardinal problem in our region stems from the oppressive policies of the ruling elites, who tend to suppress those who belong to different sects and ethnic origins, and deprive them of their rights and freedoms. It is these political elites - reluctant to recognize the rights and demands of minority groups - who are at fault for the current bloodshed.
Shiite Perceptions of Turkey
Field studies conducted in the region clearly portray that prior to the year 2011, Shiites in the region used to be quite sympathetic towards Turkey. Turkey’s political and economic support to the Lebanese Shias in the face of Israeli attacks, and Turkey’s attempts to develop its relations with Iraqi Shias and the Alawite regime in Syria contributed to the positive image of Turkey among Shias. This image was further solidified when Prime Minister Erdogan attended the Ashoura ceremonies in Turkey and visited to the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf [Iraq]. What’s more, Shiites welcomed Turkey’s veto of a UN Security Council draft resolution to impose sanctions Iran and this was considered by many Shiites as a positive step.
However, this positive perception is about to be replaced by negative sentiment given Turkey’s policies towards Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s support of the Iraqiya list during the Iraqi elections, its involvement in the NATO missile shield defense system, and its continuing support of the Sunni groups in Syria since May 2011, have changed many Shiites perception of Turkey. Shia leaders have begun to voice harsh critiques of Turkey and following the furious statements made by Iranian politicians’ furious with regards to Turkey, the Iraqi Shiites have started to accuse Turkey of fomenting strife and creating instability in the region. During a phone call between Turkish Prime Minister [Recep] Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after [an arrest warrant was issued for] Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, Erdogan voiced his concerns over the authoritarian tendencies of the Iraqi government. He also urged Iraq's leaders to ease sectarian tensions. Maliki did not welcome these remarks, and soon after the phone call he accused Turkey of leading the region towards disaster.
Turkey’s direct interaction with the Sunni leaders and the accusations it has leveled against the Maliki government have exacerbated the crisis between two countries. During a press conference, Erdogan stated:
“Today, a sectarian mindset is beginning to prevail in Iraq. This sectarian perspective, sectarian approach has unfortunately nearly turned Iraq into a blood bath. If you turn the barrel of a tank towards the house of a minister in your own government, if you threaten them in this way, you will never be able to find a healthy approach [to problems] within that society. As a matter of fact, this is what has occured. It is not possible to speak of a healthy regime in Iraq.”
Turkey’s backing of Sunni politicians during the Iraqi crisis invoked reactions from the Maliki regime. In an interview on Al-Hurra TV, Prime Minister Maliki threatened Turkey by saying:
“We did not expect Turkey to interfere in Iraq in this way. They have intervened to an astonishing extent through recent statements. These statements constitute interference in Iraq's domestic affairs, and we can never let this happen. If they talk about our juridical authority, we can talk about theirs as well, and if they talk about our debates, we can also talk about theirs. Turkey is playing a role that might bring disaster and civil war to the region. However, Turkey [is also in danger], because it too consists of many sects and groups of different ethnic origins.”
Lebanese Shia leaders echoed similar remarks. During Foreign Minister Davutoglu's most recent visit to Lebanon, Shia leaders expressed their concerns over Turkey's policies. In fact Mohammad Raad, a Shia MP, openly criticized Turkey policy vis-a-vis Syria. Meanwhile Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said that the countries drawing attention to sectarian conflicts and tensions in the region should first revise their own policies.
Professor Dr. Muhsin Saleh from the Lebanese University directly targeted Turkey in arguing that Turkey had collaborated with the Western powers and engaged in plots to effect a regime change in Syria. In fact he explained Davutoglu’s visit within this framework, suggesting that his visits to Lebanon and Iran were carried out with the aim of implementing this project.
In short, Turkey’s standing among the Shia community has changed for the worse, and it is possible to anticipate that Turkey’s image will be further damaged by the statements made by Shia leaders. While Turkey succeeded in expanding its influence over the region during the 2011 North African civil movements, it [simultaneously] lost influence over its neighbors. This loss of influence is a result of the discomfort that Shia elements in Syria and Iraq are feeling towards Turkey's foreign policy. Shia groups are in power in two states that border Turkey. Moreover, when Iran is taken into account, Shia elements technically govern an axis ranging from Mediterranean up to the Armenian border. The anti-Turkish discourse and the recent statements of certain Shia politicians are primarily due to Turkey’s policies towards Syria and Iraq.
On the other hand, when other ethnic and sectarian groups in the aforementioned countries are also taken into consideration, it becomes clear that Turkey's room for maneuver is shrinking. While Turkey is losing influence in the Christian, Druze and Kurdish communities day by day, it is also failing to maintain its leverage on Iraqi Kurdish groups, as well as on Iranian Azeri and Kurdish groups.
Meanwhile Iran has taken major steps to boost its influence on Shias and Kurds at a regional level. If Turkey fails to approach all the ethnic, regional and sectarian groups equally both on the national and regional levels, as it did during the Ottoman era, it will be doomed to face the consequences of its loss of influence.