Nihat Ali Özcan
Nihat Ali Özcan
June 22, 2011- The invasion of Iraq made the Sunni-Shiite polarization in the Middle East more apparent than ever. This was more obvious during the struggle over Iraq. Turkey tried hard to locate itself beyond the orbit of this polarization and sought ways to develop good relations with both sides: that is, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and the new Iraq, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, on the other hand. Turkey utilized various opportunities during those times.
The Arab Spring caused the struggle over Iraq to fade into the background. We are witnessing an indeterminate process challenging power holders and straining the inter-bloc balances. For instance, on the Sunni side of the equation, there is Egypt, struggling with internal problems. On the Shiite side, Syria is experiencing a shift of power and carrying the potential of inter-bloc displacement. It seems that the uprisings will not yield outcomes favoring the Shiite side.
Turkey-Syria relations were different in the near past. The uprisings changed the character of these relations. The discourse employed by President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is a good indicator of this change. In addition, Turkey’s close rapport with the U.S. regarding the Syrian politics clearly shows that Turkey has completely parted company with Bashar al-Assad. Erdo?an doesn’t want another diplomatic crisis in the context of Syria, like the one instigated by the nuclear issue with Iran. We can say that he is ideologically much closer to the Muslim Brotherhood than Assad.
Turkey’s new approach to Syria also has the potential to create tension with Iran in the medium term. A possible shift of power will end the role of Syria as the “strategic ally” of Iran; which will in turn assign a partial responsibility for such an outcome to Turkey.
Iran-Syria relations teach a significant lesson for understanding the balances in the region. During the Iraq-Iran war, Khomeini’s Iran established a strategic alliance with Syria. Rapprochement with Iran was a sign that Syria was prepared to sacrifice Saddam’s Iraq. Iran rewarded this by providing Syria 1 billion dollars worth of free oil and commercial privileges. In return, Syria let Iran’s Revolutionary Guards move to Lebanon in order to train Hezbollah. In this way, Iran, exhilarated by the Islamic revolution, was now able to reach the Israeli border. No longer suffering from diplomatic isolation, Iran responded to NATO-member Turkey’s rapprochement with Iraq by first inviting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to its own land and then allowing them to move to northern Iraq. The Syria-Iran relations of the past continue up to this day, despite minor crises.
The rise to power of a “democratic” Muslim Brotherhood with the mediatized and psychological support of the West would mean that Syria will no longer belong to the Shiite bloc. Losing an ally like Syria would force Iran to lose a highly important geopolitical space and also instigate serious psychological trauma. Under such circumstances, Turkey will most likely leave aside the politics of balancing and begin to embrace its role as a new member of the Sunni bloc. It would be no surprise at all if Turkey-Iran relations acquired a new shape in the near future.