Turkey's Sectarian War With Iran Over Syria and Iraq

Semih Idiz examines the evolution of the sectarian conflict between Turkey and Iran over Iraq and Syria.

al-monitor Turkish Shiite women shout Islamic slogans as they mourn during an Ashoura procession in Istanbul, Nov. 24, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Topics covered

us, turkish foreign policy, turkey, syrian opposition, syrian crisis, security, sectarianism, saudi, qatar, jihadists, iran nuclear file, iran, erdogan, ahmadinejad

Jan 4, 2013

One of the principle results of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was that it released the Shiite genie out of the Middle East bottle. Clearly, in retrospect, the implication of Iraq’s demographic makeup — in which the Shiites constitute the overwhelming majority — was not considered sufficiently by the Bush administration at the time.

The result, with foreign Sunni Jihadist groups pitching in to turn the country into a sectarian bloodbath, is an increasingly polarized Iraq which has come to the brink of division along ethnic and sectarian lines. The U.S. invasion of Iraq also worked to predominantly Shiite Iran’s advantage, providing Tehran the opportunity to expand its regional influence by playing the sectarian card.

Tellingly, this period also witnessed the ratcheting up of Iran’s nuclear ambitions which not only sent shivers up Israeli spines, but also increased the threat perception of Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that have always approached Tehran’s intentions with suspicion.

Turkey at that stage was still largely neutral, with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan aiming for “zero problems with neighbors,” and ties with Iran featuring prominently in this equation. The good state of relations between Ankara and Tehran also afforded the Erdogan government an opportunity to project a new approach to Turkish foreign policy, free from outside pressures, and particularly those coming from Washington.

Meanwhile, Erdogan appeared to waste no opportunity to defend Iran against Western criticism. He told an audience at the Brookings Institute in Washington in 2008, for example, and much to the annoyance of his American hosts, that “those who are telling Iran not to produce nuclear weapons should not have these weapons themselves.”

He maintained this line in subsequent statements in the West or interviews with the Western media. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s stance fed into concerns in Europe and the U.S. that Turkey, under its Islamist government, was drifting away from its traditional Western allegiances and sliding towards the Islamic world.

The high point for Erdogan came when Ankara, together with its non-permanent UN Security Council partner Brazil, brokered a deal for Iran’s enriched uranium in May 2010. This much-publicized move was supposed to reduce tension between the West and the Tehran, while greatly enhancing Turkey’s standing in the world.

The celebratory atmosphere in Ankara and Tehran, however, proved to be premature after Washington rejected the deal, arguing in effect that it was “too little to late,” and left Turkey looking like it had been led willfully into a dead end.

This, in turn, prompted the Erdogan government to defy the West and act even more as an advocate for Iran; a situation that only started changing gradually with the Arab Spring which Turkey supported, but which Tehran still believes was the result of a U.S.-Israeli led conspiracy.

In the meantime, Turkey’s ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar were cordial, and based on a spirit of mutual cooperation, but did not to have the strategic dimension in military terms that they started taking on after 201l, mainly due to the Syrian crisis.

That crisis has now pitted Sunni powers against Shiite Iran, and its regional allies, in a competition for influence in the Middle East. Syria and Iraq have also become the battlefields for a proxy war between these powers and their global backers in the UN Security Council, a fact that made a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis impossible.

Neither was it possible, it seems, for the Erdogan government to remain neutral in this struggle given its Islamist roots, even thought Turkey’s traditionally overcautious foreign policy always shied away from entanglements in Middle East disputes in the past.

Ankara today denies that it is a party to this sectarian rivalry, or that it has any serious problems with Iran. Statements from politicians and military officials in Tehran, as well as Iranian press commentary, however, point to quite a different understanding of events.

But briefly, the Syrian crisis — in which Tehran is backing the Assad regime, and Turkey the armed opposition — and the deployment of NATO’s Patriot missiles in Turkey against Syria, has driven a previously unimaginable wedge between the Erdogan government and Tehran. So much so that President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad cancelled a planned trip to Turkey in December 2012.

Iran today sees a U.S.-led anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite “axis” comprising Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This belief is also shared by Iraq’s pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who insisted only a few days ago once again that Ankara is stirring the sectarian cauldron in his country.

Iran today clearly believes that it is being encircled by hostile powers. Turkey, which already has military cooperation agreements with the U.S. going back half a century, decided in 2011 to host NATO’s U.S.-managed anti-ballistic missile radar facilities in Eastern Anatolia. Ankara denies this is poised against Iran, but U.S. officials have suggested openly that it is.

Meanwhile, Washington, which also has significant military presences in Qatar and Saudi Arabia already, has moved to enhance its military position in the region further. It signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2011 to sell $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to that country. It also decided to extend the runway at the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar to accommodate its B-2 stealth bomber, which is considered to be the flagship of its long range strike arsenal.

With all of this in the backdrop, Turkish Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel visited Saudi Arabia in November 2012 for official talks on the invitation of his Saudi counterpart Gen. Hussein bin Abdullah al-Qabil, who had visited Turkey a short time before. No Turkish chief of staff had visited Saudi Arabia since 1992, so it was natural that Ozel’s visit should feed suspicions in Tehran about an anti-Iranian Sunni axis.

Iran also noted in this context of course that the Chief of General Staff of Qatar, Gen. Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah, had visited Ankara in July 2012, during which a military cooperation agreement was also signed between he two countries.  

Meanwhile Iranian media, and Turkish commentators wary of the Erdogan government’s religiously driven foreign policy orientation, have also been noting Ankara’s quiescence when it comes to the plight of Shiites in the Gulf region, as well as the lack of democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

They argue that this belies Ankara’s claim to be opposing Bashar al-Assad on considerations to do with democracy, and human rights, and shows instead that Turkey is taking sides along the sectarian divide in the Middle East, and working to promote Sunni interests.

Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, the Times, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine, and he is a frequent contributor to BBC World, VOA, NPR, Deutche Welle, various Israeli media organizations and Al Jazeera.

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