Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

“Sunni” Turkey and the containment policy failure | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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When the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Tehran in May 2010, to offer support for the Brazilian project regarding the Iranian nuclear file, the conservative press in Iran described Erdoğan as an example of wise leadership in the region. Some newspapers also devoted extensive column inches to Erdoğan’s statements in support of Iran, particularly his critical stance towards Israel and the Western world’s view of Muslim states. Some commentators even considered Turkish-Iranian relations to be a model of stability and cooperation, arguing that since the signing of the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin – or the Treaty of Zuhab as it is known in Turkey – in 1639 between the Ottoman and Safavid empires, borders have continually been respected; this agreement remains the basis for all border treaties between the two countries.

Over the past ten years, the government of the Turkish Justice and Development Party [AKP] has been able to converge with Iran and Syria, to the extent that Iran supported Turkey’s military campaign against the strongholds of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party [PKK] in 2006, and to the extent that Syria retracted its position regarding the Iskenderun region, and abolished the need for visas to travel between the two countries. Furthermore, Turkey has strengthened its economic ties with both Syria and Iran to exceed record figures in just a few years; even obtaining Iranian concessions in the oil and gas sectors. Perhaps this is what prompted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to preach of a pro-resistance Iranian-Syrian axis including both Turkey and Iraq, in the face of what he considered to be the counter forces of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf States (al-Hayat newspaper, 26 October 2010).

In truth, Turkey let down the expectations of observers after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime; it did not seek to fill the Sunni vacuum caused by the rise of Shia political Islam to power in Iraq, nor did it show any desire to restore its Ottoman heritage in old spheres of influence. On the contrary, Turkey’s Islamists adopted a more conciliatory tone with the Syrian Baathist party, and were less sensitive towards Iranian revolutionary activities in the region, perhaps because the “containment policy” [towards Syria and Iran] that Erdoğan and his party take pride in had reaped substantial benefits for Turkey. However, in the last year, this policy has been exposed to a sizeable tremor, forcing Turkey to significantly re-evaluate its relations.

When the popular uprisings began in some Arab capitals in early 2011, Turkey tried to wait before declaring its support for the masses, but showed resistance to foreign intervention in Libya, and Erdoğan himself issued strong criticism towards NATO. Even when the uprising began in Syria, Turkey dispatched its diplomats to Damascus in an attempt to contain the situation and convince al-Assad to conduct reforms, but with the rising death toll on the Syrian streets, Ankara issued a series of statements condemning the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Not long afterwards, Turkey was compelled to participate – logistically at least – in NATO operations in Libya, and this damaged its relations with Tehran significantly. Turkey’s stance seemed hesitant; while Erdoğan was releasing statements threatening direct military intervention, and threatening al-Assad with the same fate met by Gaddafi, Turkey’s diplomatic apparatus appeared more cautious and less zealous than the speeches of the Turkish leader. This prompted many observers to say that Turkey was witnessing a divide, either in the military institution or in the foreign affairs department, regarding the danger of intervention or regime change in Syria due to security reasons, and because of dimensions of ethnicity and sectarianism, which could extend into Turkey itself if Syria turned into a scene of sectarian warfare between Turkey, Iran and other Arab parties.

In order to understand the shift in Turkish foreign policy, we need to review some historical facts, and here I am alluding to three historical stages:

First: It is not true that the history of Turkish-Iranian relations has always been stable, as claimed by the Turkish advocates of rapprochement with Iran, because Turkish-Iranian relations remained troubled and unstable until the last decade. In his book “Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey” (2007), Soner Cagaptay indicates that there is an illusion with regards to the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin, confirming that the tension inherent in Turkish-Iranian relations is based on nationalist and sectarian reasons, which have remained constant even after the emergence of a modern state in both countries. In fact, the Turkish-Iranian clash goes far beyond the four major wars between the two parties. It is true that Reza Shah was an admirer of Ataturk’s secular nationalist project, but at the same time both countries fought a war in 1930 that led to the amendment of the border treaty between them. After that, Turkey broke off contacts with Tehran, in order to orientate towards the West at the expense of the region.

Second: The Turkish position was clear in its rejection of the Iranian revolutionary model, and Turkey played a prominent role as a member of NATO in addressing Iran’s aspirations to export its revolution. Perhaps for this reason the Khomeini regime supported left-wing Kurdish, Armenian and Islamist armed groups, such as the Turkish Hezbollah, against Ankara during the 1980s, and the late Turkish Prime Minister Turgut ضzal led a clear policy in support of Pakistan during the Afghan war with the Soviet Union. Turkey remained skeptical of the intentions of the Iranian regime. The 1990s witnessed the assassination of several secular Turkish intellectuals and journalists, and Ankara accused Tehran of being involved.

Third: The idea of rapprochement with Tehran was the initiative of Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamic Welfare Party, who is considered the godfather of converging relations with the Islamic Republic. He paved the way for the visit of President Mohammad Khatami, and the signing of oil and security agreements between the two countries. This approach was opposed by some leaders of military and secular institutions, who saw it as an attempt by the Islamists of Turkey to repeat the Khomeinist model in their own country. Perhaps this explains Erbakan’s visit to Tehran after his political ban was lifted in 2009, and also explains Ali Velayati, Iran’s former Foreign Minister and adviser to the Supreme Guide, saying that Erbakan has always been a friend of Iran.

Such historical milestones are important in order to explain the Turkish shift from a policy of containment towards Iran and Syria between 2003 and 2010, and the current state of verbal sparring between the two sides. In recent months, Erdoğan has received several opponents of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki such as President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani, [Iraqi Vice President] Tariq al-Hashemi and Iyad Allawi. He has gone even further than this and accused al-Maliki of adopting a dictatorial and sectarian trend, whereby he excludes his opponents. In return, al-Maliki reacted to Erdoğan’s move by visiting Tehran, condemning what he termed the ”sectarian” – meaning Sunni – interference in his government in Iraq, branding Turkey as a “hostile” state in the region.

There can be no doubt that Turkey is re-evaluating its relations with Iraq and Syria. Yet, at the same time, I must emphasize that there are two currents within the Turkish policymaking sphere: one is eager to confront the Syrian-Iranian axis, and the other current – which includes figures from within Erdoğan’s own party – continues to warn against abandoning the containment policy that has been adopted towards these two countries.

Recent events have proven that the historical differences between the two parties still exist; no matter how Turkey has tried to use its containment policy, it has eventually been forced to resort to its “Sunni” identity and “Turkish” nationalism, even if indirectly. This is nothing new. When the Nagorno-Karabakh War broke out in February 1988 between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis in the Southern Caucasus, Iran and Turkey adopted contrasting positions towards the crisis, which sparked a diplomatic row between the two countries. Iran had sought to embrace the Azerbaijanis with open arms, welcoming them as Shiites and revolutionaries, whilst Turkey was wary of the expansion of Khomeini’s influence in the Southern Caucasus. This prompted Prime Minister Turgut ضzal to overtly declare, during his visit to the US in 1990, that “the Azerbaijanis are Shia, unlike the Turks, and hence, of more concern to Iran, since Turkey does not have pan-Turkic ambitions.”

Today, Turkish-Iranian disagreements over Syria are being renewed. The Turks have made no secret of their feeling that their interests will be jeopardized so long as the Bashar al-Assad regime remains in power. As for Iran, it considers the Turkish stance – especially Turkey’s sponsorship of the Syrian Transitional Council and the asylum it is granting to the displaced Syrian Sunnis – to represent a hostile approach towards its strategic interest, namely the survival of its Baathist ally.

There is no doubt that, for the most part, politics is governed by interests, which may explain Turkey reconsidering its containment policy towards the Iranian-Syrian axis, for its interests are now at stake. The Turks fear the danger of the Syrian Kurds rising to power after al-Assad is overthrown, and they fear that relations with the Alawite minority in Turkey may become strained, and they are therefore now seeking a Muslim Brotherhood alternative to rule Syria.

In 1985, Turgut ضzal expressed his disappointment at the future of Iran under the rule of the mullahs, and the Iranian press reacted by saying “Turkey is nothing more than a pawn for US interests.” 25 years later, Erdoğan directed similar words of criticism towards Iran, and this prompted the Iranian press to react by saying “Turkey is implementing an American agenda to spread the Turkish model of political Islam.”