Turkish President Recept Tayip Erdogan is resorting to increasing sectarian rhetoric to keep challengers at bay.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought about a radical change in Muslim East politics. Previously, the political landscape was constructed primarily around the Arab/Israeli conflict. As many polls have shown, Arab public opinion saw the Palestinian cause as a priority and viewed the Arabian regimes as powerless and complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians. On the other hand, Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas adopted a confrontational military strategy that proved popular among Arabs and Muslims with the successes it achieved in Lebanon and Gaza.
This popularity started to regress with the new era imposed by the US occupation of Iraq. It saw a rise in sectarian tensions in Iraq and the Arab region generally. This rise was instrumentalized primarily by the divisive policies of the occupiers and their proxies in the region, mainly Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, a coordinated campaign was launched using sectarianism to smear the resistance’s reputation and the cause it championed. The sectarian fighting that erupted in Iraq around 2006 also inserted sectarianism into the Arab-Israeli equation. This effort was aimed at the Arab and Muslim street, which is predominantly Sunni, to create doubts about the motives of the resistance axis that is made up mainly of Shi‘is.
With impotent Arabian dictators on one side and an “untrusted” resistance front on the other, the Arab and Muslim street was faced with a leadership crisis. With what some have described as perfect timing, Turkey experienced an awakening to Arab and Muslim causes. Secular and isolated for a long time from the Muslim masses, Turkey experienced a radical change in its foreign policy with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the charismatic Turkish Prime Minister, benefited from the vacuum in the Arab street to boost his popularity. He had the perfect portfolio: a Sunni leader heading a prosperous and powerful democratic country that was once the last “Muslim empire” in modern Islamic history. His verbal confrontations with the Israelis that rarely materialized into effective policies and the heroic attempt by Turkish activists to break the siege of Gaza in May 2010 only raised his prestige among an emotional and desperate Arab public.
In addition to the populist politics of Erdogan, Turkey’s “zero problem policy” also earned credit both with the Arabian regimes and the people. This policy translated into good relations with all neighboring countries until it was put to the test with the advent of the “Arab Spring.” Turkey’s inconsistent position toward events in the Arab world led to accusations of hypocrisy, sectarianism, and political expediency.
How can Turkey call for democracy in some countries and not in others? Why does Turkey turn a blind eye toward popular demands in the Persian Gulf region, especially Bahrain and Saudi Arabia while championing the cause of the people of Egypt? Why are tensions rising between different sects in Turkey? Why does Turkey facilitate access of extremist Sunni groups with takfiri ideology into Syria?
In answering these questions, it is difficult to ignore a pattern of the Erdogan government that uses and benefits from sectarian rhetoric, not only regionally but also domestically. The Turkish government has carried out policies to polarize various constituents along sectarian lines. Erdogan’s description of victims of a twin car bomb in the Turkish town of Reyhanli as “53 Sunni citizens” evoked much criticism. He also used sectarian language against his opponents in the recent presidential election, referring to their ‘Alawi and Kurdish roots. At the operational level, the Turkish government has implemented policies to divide Antakya along sectarian lines and ‘Alawi communities, representing close to 20 million Turks, are crying foul over the government’s discriminatory policies.
Three years after the Arab Spring, Turkey’s “zero problem policy” is severely damaged and lies discredited. Many events that Turkey banked on did not pay off. On the contrary, they turned into problems threatening the country’s national security. Moreover, Turkey’s “Sunni oriented” foreign policy, as the International Crisis Group called it, is not popular with either ‘Alawis or the Kurds in Turkey.
At the regional level, the ruling AKP has been put on the defensive recently amid a vicious campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led by Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s main allies in the region are being purged. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain have punished Qatar, Turkey’s wingman in the Arab world, by withdrawing ambassadors from the rich but small country as a warning to conform to GCC policies (these have since been restored thanks to Kuwaiti efforts forcing Qatar to change its policy). A tense relationship with Egypt has ensued following the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood from power and the subsequent crackdown, and attempts to smother Hamas in Gaza by the counter-revolutionary forces, have all been setbacks for Turkey.
Further, Turkey’s position on Syria and Iraq has become critical. The demise of the Free Syrian Army, Turkey’s favorable Syrian opposition faction, and rise of the takfiri terrorist groups, especially the “Islamic State” (IS), is a serious threat to its national security. The first victims of the takfiris’ advancement in Mosul were diplomats in the Turkish consulate. Turkey used their captivity to refuse participation in an international coalition against the takfiris. Ankara then negotiated its diplomats’ release with the terrorists in a secretive and shady manner, raising many questions about AKP’s relations with the notoriously barbaric group.
The Turkish position toward the terrorist groups in general is raising many eyebrows since it uses language to justify and sometimes defend their existence. The main argument used by Turkish officials focuses on how these groups’ emergence is a reaction to discrimination against Sunnis in the region. The term “Sunni injustice” is prevalent in the rhetoric used by extremists as well as the Turkish government.
While there is some basis to the discrimination argument, it cannot be explained solely on sectarian lines. Historical, social, economic, and political factors come into play in understanding such phenomena. The Turks seem determined to selectively blow the sectarian factor out of proportion. This seems even more questionable considering that Ahmet Davutoglu, architect of the Turkish foreign policy and now Prime Minister, holds a doctorate in political science and international relations and knows exactly the consequences of such policies.
Turkey’s foreign policy in the region has become precarious since it relies heavily on sectarianism. Given the nature of its society and its interests, Turkey needs to accommodate different groups of people and countries. From zero-problem policy to a “full-problem policy,” Turkey has only added to its list of enemies and lost many friends. To reverse this trend, Turkey must rethink its strategy. It must abandon reliance on extremists groups whether in Syria or Iraq, and form new alliances. Iran seems to be the most logical choice.
Iran’s rapprochement with the West and the growing likelihood of resolution of its nuclear file will readmit Iran into the ambit of the international community allowing it to play a much greater role at many levels. In addition, the Iranian-Turkish shared interests, economically and politically, are more secure and permanent than Turkey’s interests with the GCC countries with whom it shares no borders. With the takfiris rampaging on both Iran and Turkey’s border, they must consider developing a joint strategy to fight them. Talks about such a coalition are underway. Ideologically, Iran has been on relatively good terms with the Muslim Brotherhood and has supported them both in Egypt and in Palestine. Their relationship seems to be recovering after the setback caused by the Syrian crisis and the rise of sectarian rhetoric in the region.
Further, Hizbullah’s involvement in fighting in parts of Syria and the Syrian regime’s offensives against the takfiris might ironically prove beneficial for Turkey. The victory of extremist terrorist groups, with many foreign fighters in their ranks, in toppling the Syrian regime is not in Turkey’s interest simply because no one wants another Afgha-nistan next door. The Syrian State is still relatively strong and the government capable of keep Syria united with some sense of national identity. Supporting a political solution in Syria can prove constructive, as well as contain the humanitarian crisis that is affecting the Syrian people as well as Syria’s neighbors, especially Turkey.
At the end of 2014, the region’s future appears as unpredictable as ever. The AKP’s grip on power is strengthening with Erdogan taking the presidency and Davutoglu becoming prime minister. Will Turkey move away from a policy, both domestic and foreign, based on sectarianism and in favor of a more balanced and constructive one? The answer to this question remains uncertain at present.