Sunday, January 8, 2012
Can Turkey stop Sunni-Shiite, Iran-Arab Cold War?
The answer is yes. The more challenging question is how Turkey is planning to realize it.
Today, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu spoke before a group of smart people that Turkey is determined to stop Sunni-Shiite, Iran-Arab Cold War in the Middle East and will not allow such a scenario to play out. It raised many questions, the most important of them being how Turkey is going to realize what it vows.
Davutoğlu’s fears illustrated a prevailing sense of concerns reigned in Ankara, which saw itself standing in equal distance to all sects in the Middle East so far and worried over situation in Syria and growing influence of Iran in Baghdad.
Davutoğlu, in an interview with Turkish TV network Habertürk on Friday night, said the most effective way in averting potentially devastating sectarian strife is to talk. He said this is the reason why he visited Iran earlier this week and why his whirlwind telephone diplomacy is vital. It would be naive of him to expect that mere dialogue and political consultations will help in anyway but talking is a good way to reduce uncertainties and unpredictable outcomes. Robert Keohane speaks here in some detail how institutionalizing a set of rules will reduce uncertainties.
I cheer when states start making threatening remarks and I worry more if countries assure themselves of friendship when obviously something wrong is going on between them. Miscalculation of Saddam when he invaded Kuwait in 1991 was caused by American diplomat April Glaspie, who failed to give Saddam a clear warning that the US is determined to protect its ally Kuwait if Iraq ever decides to invade the tiny Gulf country. While lack of communication and hence miscalculation between Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Soviet Union led to a devastating world war, the same set of causes could also be brought as an example to explain August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
Turkish foreign minister is thus pursuing a correct strategy in engaging with countries in its vicinity to reduce uncertainities – a key ingredient for any foreign policy decision-making. The question if one can really rely on Iran’s messages is a separate topic.
There are three ways that Turkey can end Arab-Iran or Sunni-Shiite rivalry in the region. First, it could ally with Arab countries and the United States to contain expanding Iran and its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Second, it could mediate between Arabs and Iran to end sabre-rattling in Gulf and offer alternative means to diplomacy to at least delay bloody confrontations. The third option is to find a way to eliminate factors that make sects politicized.
The third option seems particularly challenging, because we are talking about countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon where one group or another suppressed and persecuted its rival for decades. It is most of the time hard to build mutual trust and mitigate factors that cause hatred and politicization of sects.
Today’s Zaman columnist Gökhan Bacık explained in some detail in his column how Sunni-Shiite divide – not even traditionally religious concepts – is rallied behind political ideologies. He says Sunni-Shiite split refers to the different, and sometimes even opposite, political positions assumed by states like Turkey, Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
Brewing sectarian strife in the Middle East is not unprecedented. Europe witnessed similar bloody clashes in early 17th century when hundreds of thousands of people killed. The cure then was establishing nation-states and cutting ties with papacy. Creating national and state identities is key in getting rid of seeing any particular sect as a political party. An idea that a state identity is more sacrosanct than religious loyalties healed bleeding sectarian wars in Europe. Iraq and Lebanon, blessed with Shiites and Sunnis, seem to have difficult times to build Lebanese and Iraqi identities. Hence Iran can easily exploit them.
The reason why Hezbollah relies more on Iran than Beirut and the reason why Iraqi Shiites consider Iran more trustworthy than their Sunni fellow citizens is because they are preoccupied with the idea that Sunnis could persecute them if left alone.
Pushing for more democracy in these countries and convincing Shiites and Sunnis that participation in political processes is an effective way in sheltering from persecution is what Turkey ought to do. This will take some time and, inevitably, blood. However, to my mind, I can hardly see any other option that could be less bloody and shortcut to the solution.