Analysis: Turkey's dangerous ambitions

Turkey now finds itself confronting a formidable bloc of pro-Shi'ite countries: Russia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and (not to mention the much smaller Lebanon).

By BURAK BEKDIL
December 25, 2015 00:30
4 minute read.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

 
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It is the same old Middle East story: The Shi'ites accuse Sunnis of passionately following sectarian policies; Sunnis accuse the Shi'ites of passionately following sectarian polices; and they are both right. Except that Turkey's pro-Sunni sectarian policies are taking an increasingly perilous turn as they push Turkey into new confrontations, adding newcomers to an already big list of hostile countries.

Take President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent remarks on the centuries-old Shi'ite-Sunni conflict: they amusingly looked more like a confession than an accusation: "Today we are faced with an absolute sectarianism. Who is doing it? Who are they? Iran and Iraq," Erdogan said.

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This is the same Erdogan who once said, "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers...." Is that not sectarian?

So, with a straight face, the President of one sectarian country (Sunni Turkey) is accusing another country (Shi'ite Iran and Shi'ite-dominated Iraq) of being sectarian.

Erdogan went on: "What about the Sunnis? There are Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmen and Sunni Kurds [in Iraq and Syria]. What will happen to their security? They want to feel safe."

Never realizing that its ambitions to spread Sunni Islam over large swaths of the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, were bigger than its ability to do so, Turkey now finds itself confronting a formidable bloc of pro-Shi'ite countries: Russia, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and (not to mention the much smaller Lebanon).

Even before the crisis with Russia that began on November 24 -- over Turkey's shooting down a Russian SU-24 along the Turkish-Syrian border -- has shown any sign of de-escalation, another Turkish move had sparked a major dispute with neighboring Iraq.



Just when Turkey moved to reinforce its hundreds of troops at a military camp in Iraq, the Baghdad government gave an ultimatum to Ankara for the removal of all Turkish soldiers stationed in Iraq since last year. Turkey responded by halting its reinforcements. Not enough, the Iraqis apparently think. Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said on December 7 that his country might turn to the UN security council if Turkish troops in northern Iraq were not withdrawn within 48 hours. Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the militant Shi'ite Badr Organization, threatened that his group would fight Turkish forces if Ankara continued its troop deployment.

Badr Brigade spokesman Karim al-Nuri put the Turkish ambitions in quite a realistic way: "We have the right to respond and we do not exclude any type of response until the Turks have learned their lesson ... Do they have a dream of restoring Ottoman greatness? This is a great delusion and they will pay dearly for Turkish arrogance."

Inevitably, Russia came into the picture. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said he told the Security Council that Turkey was acting "recklessly and inexplicably" by sending troops across the border into Iraq without the consent of the Iraqi government. According to Russia, the Turkish move "lacks legality."

All that fell on deaf ears in Ankara, as Erdogan repeated on Dec. 11 that Turkey would not pull out its troops from Iraq. In response, Iraq appealed to the UN Security Council to demand an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Turkish troops from northern Iraq, calling Turkey's military incursion a "flagrant violation" of international law.

The next day, Shi'ite militia members gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square to protest against Turkey. Crowds of young men in military fatigues, as well as some Shi'ite politicians, chanted against Turkish "occupation," vowing they would fight the Turkish troops themselves if they do not withdraw. Angry protesters also burned Turkish flags.

Through its efforts to oust Syria's non-Sunni president, Bashar Assad, and build a Muslim Brotherhood-type of Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus, Turkey has become everyone's foe over its eastern and southern borders -- in addition to having to wait anxiously for the next Russian move to hit it -- not knowing where the blow will come from.

The confrontation with Russia has given Moscow an excuse to augment its military deployment in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean, and weaken allied air strikes against Islamic State (ISIS).

Russia has increased its military assets in the region, including deploying S-400 air and anti-missile defense systems, probably ready to shoot down the first Turkish fighter jet flying over Syrian skies.

Waiting for Turkish-Russian tensions to ease, and trying to avoid a clash between NATO member Turkey and Russia, US officials have quietly put on hold a request for Turkey to more actively join the allied air missions in Syria against ISIS. After having lost its access to Syrian soil, Turkey also has been declared militarily non grata in Iraq.

As Professor Norman Stone, a prominent expert on Turkish politics, explained in a recent article: "Erdogan's adventurism has been quite successful so far, but it amounts to an extraordinary departure for Turkish foreign policy, and maybe even risks the destruction of the country. How on earth could this happen? The background is an inferiority complex, and megalomania. For centuries, and even since the Mongols, sensible Islam has asked: 'What went wrong? Why has God forsaken us, and allowed others to reach the moon?'"

With the inferiority complex and megalomania still gripping the country's Islamist polity, Erdogan's Islam is not sensible; it is perilous.

Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

This article was originally written for the Gatestone Institute.


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