Turkey plays regional Shiite card with no move at home

Turkey plays regional Shiite card with no move at home

Earlier last week, the Turkish foreign minister engaged in a long-delayed mission to mend his country’s ties with one of its war-ridden neighbors, Iraq, but with a different kind of motivation and symbolic gestures. Turkey’s relationship with the central government in Baghdad has been troubled for some time due to Ankara’s blossoming trade and energy ties with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. 

Turkey’s increasingly closer ties with Iraqi Kurds was certainly not only aimed at luring the KRG as an ally as Ankara also wanted to position KRG President Masoud Barzani as a counter-balancing force against the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose offshoot in Syria has been cementing its power in the country’s volatile north amid slow-moving peace efforts with the militant group in Turkey. 

Interestingly, neither the KRG link nor the highly inflammable rhetoric in regard to relations with Baghdad were running high on the agenda of Turkey’s top diplomat, Ahmet Davutoğlu, since he presented both Iraq and the other regional countries a well-designed PR campaign on ethnic divisions and clashes in the region. Dressed in an all-black suit with a green scarf – an outfit similar to those worn by mourning Shiites during the somber Remembrance of Muharram marking the massacre of the kin of Caliph Ali during the Battle of Karbala by Umayyad Caliph Yazid I – Davutoğlu took tours in Shiite cities and neighborhoods and grieved with mourners before meeting with influential Shiite religious leaders, such as Ali al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr.

During his meetings with senior government and religious leaders in Iraq, which is ruled by a Shiite prime minister and has been suffering an ethnic-fueled violence since the early days of the U.S. occupation in 2003, Davutoğlu repeatedly emphasized the danger of ethnic-based politics and how the Shiite-Sunni violence might be calamitous for the region. He has a fair point with an eye on not only Iraq but as well as Syria, which is standing in the middle of a civil war, to which Turkey has also contributed greatly.

The prioritization of Davutoğlu’s agenda during his Iraq visit over Shiite-Sunni tensions and violence was a reflection of Turkey’s belated concerns on the Syrian Civil War. For the last two years, Turkey has taken nearly all not-to-be-taken steps in Syria, which eventually ended up witnessing a destructive ethnic battle. Before Iraq, Davutoğlu had a similar anti-ethnic moment of truth with Iran during the country’s foreign minister’s visit to Turkey yet again over fears of a new round of violence in Syria.

In the meantime, another well-designed PR campaign has also been organized for the Shiite, Alevi-Alawite and other Shiite communities in Turkey with “official” and lavish fast-breaking ceremonies for the month of Muharram, which has raised even more eyebrows among the members of these minority groups. The month was for mourning after all, and the extravagant ceremonies were nothing but outrageous.

The PR campaign toward Turkey’s estranged Alevi community was also accompanied by an announcement by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who heralded that he would name his new grandson after Caliph Ali in a gesture he hoped would please the community. But it will hardly do so since the long-standing frustration of Alevis with the government was recently exacerbated, as the community has only seen symbolic gestures despite their long list of demands, or at least the recognition of their existence.

Considering Turkey’s overtures toward “other” ethnic groups in the region, the intervened local and regional policies of the Turkish government appeared to be pinning hopes on outsiders with similar ethnic backgrounds to those in Turkey who felt officially alienated.

In its Kurdish peace efforts, which have already hit a snag, Turkey is playing the Barzani card while snubbing the demands of its own Kurds. The situation is no different regarding the ties with Alevis, since their outcry has long fallen on deaf ears while Turkey first pursued ethnic-based policies in the region with the hope of leading Sunnis, but is now trying to fine-tune it with a call for rapprochement. 

However, without burying the hatchet and making peace with its own minorities, Turkey will find the going tough in an effort to make any gains at the regional level since it is far from having a mediatory role between the rival camps. At the top of it, it also sits on an ethnic fault line that risks mirroring the tensions and even violence that lies just a few miles across the border.