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US, Turkey back Sunni regimes

HDN | 5/16/2011 12:00:00 AM | SEMİH İDİZ

The selectivity in the approach to different repressive regimes is bound to result in just the opposite of what Washington and Ankara would like to see in the long run.

Talking to Al Jazeera over the past few days members of Bahrain's Shi'ite majority have been decrying Washington's soft approach to the Sunni-led regime of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, which is currently oppressing them violently. They have been wondering why the Obama administration, which is always so keen to highlight human rights in the case of some regional countries, is not applying any pressure to stop the violence against Bahrain's Shi'ites.

Also being questioned is Washington's tolerance of the incursion of Saudi troops, ostensibly under the banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council, into Bahrain where they were used to help the Sunni regime quell Shi'ite demonstrations under the guise of bringing stability to the country. These questions are naive of course and those asking them are undoubtedly aware of it. They are obviously merely trying to make a point by means of such rhetorical questions.

The answer to their questions can in fact be summarized in a nutshell. Washington has always backed Sunni regimes in the region, starting with the most undemocratic and repressive of them all, Saudi Arabia, despite the fact this country spawned al-Qaeda that went on to perpetrate the Sept. 11 atrocity.

The fact Washington's archenemy Iran is a major Shi'ite power, which claims protective rights over the regions Shi'ites, and now has nuclear ambitions, is clearly a main source of concern for the United States administration. It was noteworthy in this respect that Iran did not waste time in criticizing the oppression of the Shi'ites in Bahrain and was quick to condemn the Saudi incursion into that country.

Neither has the U.S. experience with Iraqi's majority Shi'ites been a happy one. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has links to Iran, and his Mahdi Army have ambushed and killed U.S. troops in Sadr City and elsewhere in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. In 2008 the group had fierce clashes with the U.S. backed and trained Iraqi army and tensions persist today making the task of unifying Iraq that much more difficult.

On a side note it must be mentioned that relatively moderate Shi'ite groups such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution have chosen to cooperate with the U.S. in Iraq up to a point, but this is clearly more out of expediency than love. The bottom line here is that while one can not discount the fact that al-Qaeda is a Sunni group, and that Sunni militia has caused a lot of headaches for Washington in Iraq, almost all of Washington's strategic military alliances in the region are with Sunni regimes.

This makes it inevitable that the U.S.'s main military presence in the Gulf, which has been increasing noticeably and not declining since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, are in Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, all of them under Sunni regimes. These bases are of increasing strategic value to the U.S. and it was telling that the U.S. military did not have to use the İncirlik Airbase or other facilities in Turkey in the pullout from Iraq.

Because of the sensitivity of radical Muslims in Saudi Arabia the presence of the U.S. military in that country has been reduced significantly over these past few years. But this has not stopped the two countries from signing an agreement in 2010 for the transfer of U.S. military hardware to the tune of $60 billion to the Saudi Kingdom over a period of 10 years.

As matters stand almost all of the weapons used by Saudi forces in Bahrain have "Made in America" stamped on them. All of this goes to show clearly that while the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia may have been reduced; the strategic alliance continues strong and is set to do so for many years to come.

Against all of this is a backdrop of increased tensions between Sunni's and Shi'ites in the whole of the Middle East. Arab diplomats in Ankara openly express their concern over this growing divide, which risks turning the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran into a hot confrontation if these divisions continue to grow and fester.

Given it is becoming increasingly apparent that the "Arab Spring" does not appear set to bloom anytime soon, even in Egypt where it was thought most likely to do so, it is unlikely that Washington will push its strategic and military concerns to the background, and come to bear strongly on government's in the Persian Gulf that are oppressing their Shi'ite minorities or majorities, as both cases exist.

The U.S. will of course appear to be exhorting these governments to do much more in line with democratic and humane values, since it has to do this as a minimum to save face, but it will hardly burn any bridges over these issues. If anything what we do know about the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf goes to show that the U.S. is hunkering down for the long haul, and has no plans to evacuate the region militarily anytime soon.

Turkey is of course another predominantly Sunni country that is increasingly important for Washington in the face of developments in the Middle East and North Africa. While it can not be said the two countries have "excellent relations," as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said to U.S. TV journalist Charlie Rose during his interview last week, it is clear that the two countries need each other.

Therefore ties between Washington and Ankara do not have to be "excellent" but “functional,” which to all intents and purposes how they appear to be today. There is also the fact that Turkey is also uneasy about the growing tensions between Sunni's and Shi'ites in the region.

It is a fact that Turkey maintains good ties with Shi’ite Iran today, but it is still noteworthy that Ankara too has said little of substance over the oppression of the Shi'ites in Bahrain. While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initially made some negative remarks about the Saudi incursion into Bahrain it is very noticeable that he did not follow up on this in any way.

Put another way Turkey seems very much in league with the U.S. in its selective expressions of dissatisfaction aimed at oppressive regimes in the region, depending on how "user friendly" these regimes are, and the extent of the Turkish material interest in the countries involved.

Neither is it a certainty that the very Sunni Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government can maintain the close ties it has with Teheran in the long run if the Sunni-Shi’ite divide grows and takes on dangerous proportions; especially if this divide appears to be splitting Syria, a scary thought to even consider for Turkish officials.

The problem here, however, is that this kind of selectivity in the approach to different repressive regimes in the region is bound to result in just the opposite of what Washington and Ankara would like to see in the long run.

In other words Shi'ites who feel they are abandoned by the world will have little choice in the end but to deliver themselves into the arms of an enthusiastically waiting Iran, especially if the violence against them by Sunni regimes and armed gangs continues to escalate.

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