Rising Shiite influence in post-US Iraq poses threat for Turkey
A Sunni-Shiite rift seems to be taking hold in Iraq, given the current political turmoil that broke out after the final departure of the US military from Iraq on Monday, when Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was charged with organizing assassinations and bombings. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, called for Hashemi's arrest. The sectarian rift appeared to deepen on Thursday when a series of bombings hit Baghdad, killing at least 69 people in the Shiite districts of Iraq's capital.
Political experts speaking with Sunday's Zaman say a changing balance of power in favor of Shiites in the country would mean an inevitable rise in Iranian power across the Middle East, limiting Turkish regional influence politically and economically. Turkey sees Iraq as a doorway to the rest of the Middle East and has so far enjoyed warm ties with the Iraqi government that came to power following the US invasion in 2003. The Turkish government also announced plans recently that it could bypass Syria and use Iraqi routes for trade in the Middle East, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored Turkish calls for political reform in response to anti-regime protests, prompting Ankara to impose political and economic sanctions on Damascus. Losing Iraq as a main trading partner as well as a passage to the rest of the Middle East would deal a major blow to Turkey's economic aspirations in the Middle East.
Politically, experts say that despite expanding cooperation between Turkey and Iran over the past several years, the two countries pursue conflicting interests in the Middle East.
"Turkish and Iranian interests in the Middle East do not converge. Iran and Turkey are on opposing sides internationally, considering that Turkey is a NATO member," Veysel Ayhan, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Sunday's Zaman. "Turkey has also been developing economic and security relations with Saudi Arabia, which aspires to balance Iranian power in the Gulf region through a strategic partnership with Turkey," added Ayhan.
Talha Kose, a political analyst at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) and a lecturer at İstanbul Shehir University, stressed the importance of maintaining political support for Iraqi Sunnis, which he says is key to balance growing Iranian power in the Middle East. "Turkey's dialogue with Iraqi Sunnis should continue in order to maintain the current distribution of power between Sunnis and Shiites," Kose said. He also warned that Sunnis would resort to violence if they are excluded from power, causing bloody strife in the country and disturbing Iraq's territorial integrity.
Gokhan Bacık, a professor at Zirve University in the southeastern province of Gaziantep, on the other hand, holds a different view. He says Turkey needs to show its good will towards Shiite Muslims in the Middle East by ending its Sunni-oriented foreign policy, an example of which, he says, is Ankara's close cooperation with Bahrain's Sunni government. Bacık sees Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's March meeting with Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, and a subsequent letter to Sistani to give him assurances about Turkey's policy towards the Arab Spring, as positive developments. However, he said there are other channels to reach out to Shiites as well, including inviting Sistani to Ankara. He also said Turkey could reach out to the Shiites in the Middle East through its own Shiite Muslim community, the Caferis. According to Bacık, a good-intentioned Shiite policy would provide Turkey an important asset in its efforts to counter rising Iranian dominance.
The Iraqi population is predominantly Shiite Muslim, with Shiites constituting 60 percent of the population. Iraqi Kurds, constituting the second biggest ethnic group in Iraq, are Sunnis, while Turkmens, who have close ethnic links with Turkey, are mostly Shiites. Considering these figures, Bacık stated that the Sunni-Shiite division has surpassed ethnic differences in post-US occupation Iraqi society. "Even in approaching Turkmens, our kin, an ethno-nationalist discourse without any Shiite emphasis is bound to fail," he said.
Ayhan, agreeing with Kose and Bacık on the risks posed to Turkey by growing Iranian influence, is not, however, optimistic about the prospects available to Turkey to keep the Sunni-Shiite balance in Iraqi politics. He asserted that Iraqi sectarian conflict has already passed the point of no return, claiming that the territorial integrity of Iraq can be preserved only if Shiites dominate the government -- which is the best scenario for Iran.
"Iran, having a strong influence over Syria, may significantly expand its influence in the Middle East as a whole if Shiites come to power In Iraq. In such a scenario, Iran would find itself in an alliance with Middle East neighbors Syria and Iraq, as well as others from the north, namely Russia and China," Ayhan said. "Apart from Turkey losing its leading status in the Middle East, such an alliance means a Cold War-like polarization in the world, because the rise of such an alliance would also put the interests of the US and other Western powers in the Middle East at great risk."
From 1917 until 1991, the Soviet Union exercised great influence over the Middle East. After the fall of the Soviets, socialist ideologies that are a remnant of the Soviet era slowly lost their appeal in the region, although international ties between Russia and some Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Syria still remain strong.
For Emre Uslu, a columnist for the Taraf and Zaman dailies, however, the US withdrawal from Iraq is not to be exaggerated since it is just a military withdrawal. The economic and political presence of the US will remain strong in Iraq and it will stay dependent on the US not only to achieve its industrial and development goals, but also on military/technology issues since it remains a conflict-weary country. The US plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, hoping to foster a lasting relationship with the nation and to maintain a strong military force in the region, with military training and by providing weapons. Given these facts, Uslu said: "Iraq would not like to cooperate with Iran because of the displeasure of the US, whose aid it needs for security, and economic and other concerns. Hence, as long as Turkey maintains good relations with the US, Turkey has more advantages to gain from Iraq, compared to an Iran isolated by the US and many Western powers."
Iranian business activities are mostly in the hands of Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guards, with 40 percent of Iranian businesses in Iraq being controlled by the Guards. Many of these businesses, however, are subject to international sanctions imposed by the US. Noting that the US would never welcome the presence of Iranian business activities in Iraq, Uslu explained that Turkish companies will be in a far more advantageous position as compared to their Iranian counterparts. He said expanding business ties with Iraq is the best way for Turkey to avert Iranian influence in this country.
But Uslu warned that Iran could still be able to exert influence in Iraq through other channels, such as inciting sectarian violence through pro-Iranian Shiite groups, even if its influence is restrained by the legitimate business initiatives of Turkey. "Provoking a chaotic situation in Iraq by igniting sectarian strife, Iran would also be able to distract international attention from the Syrian regime's violence against protesters," he said.
On the issue of Turkey's relations with Iraq's Kurdish region and Turkey's long-lasting PKK terror issue, Uslu praised the recent Turkish policy of using soft power. "Turkey started to normalize its ties with northern Iraq, choosing to strengthen northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish government. It is a clever strategy to use, because developing states always have something to lose and so they try to avoid political uncertainties that could encourage terrorist organizing that in turn has the potential to threaten state stability," Uslu stated, saying that this strategy may avert possible security problems which would come out of a security void after the US withdrawal.