Time for Turkey to move toward secular diplomacy

Time for Turkey to move toward secular diplomacy

From an optimistic perspective, it could be argued that there are hopeful indicators that the civil war in Syria will soon end, thanks to the ongoing Geneva and Astana processes. Although a stable and peaceful Syria that has secured its unity is a long way ahead, some have observed a relative end to the mass killing of civilians and a relatively solid truce between the Syrian regime and opposition groups.

Amid the decline of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has suffered multiple defeats against the anti-ISIL coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian regime, there are hopes that the war-torn country will be fully cleared of jihadist terrorists in 2018.

In Iraq, the failure of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in its move for independence - thanks to the rare cooperation between Turkey, Iran and Iraq - seems to offer a new opportunity for those three countries to launch a new regional cooperation initiative. With the assistance of the international community, Iraq is also winning the fight against ISIL in its territories and therefore has the chance to begin a new period of development and restructuring.

However, this positive outline does not necessarily mean the region will become a bed of roses. Many are concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria, with the Hashd al-Shabi militias becoming part of the Iraqi national defense forces. Hezbollah has been one of the most powerful defenders of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in recent years and Arab analysts say a “Shiite corridor” from Iran to Lebanon on the Mediterranean Sea has already been established.

The unexpected resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last weekend must be noted while mentioning all these developments. There is speculation that Hariri was forced to resign upon pressure from Saudi Arabia, but the real motive is still unclear. Nevertheless, there is little need to say that all of this will plunge this tiny Middle Eastern country into a fresh instability and into the middle of a fresh sectarian fight.

Hariri’s resignation came a day after Yemeni Houthi rebels attempted to hit Riyadh with a missile that was intercepted before it reached the city’s main airport. The Saudi leadership immediately accused Iran of the attack and described it as act of war. Tehran denied the accusations, saying the missile was fired by the Houthis in response “to war crimes and several years of aggression by the Saudis.”

It may be argued that the ongoing proxy war in the Middle East between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has now entered a new phase. Despite huge financial, military and political support, the Sunni coalition led by the Saudi Kingdom has failed to claim victory in Yemen. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s efforts, along with other prominent Arab countries, to force Qatar to surrender and accept all of its conditions through sanctions have also not yielded the desired results. On the contrary, the pressure on Qatar has further pushed it into the arms of Iran and Turkey.

This all tells us that we may be on the brink of new regional tension, with newly established alliances. Saudi Arabia receives open support from the United States and its traditional Arab partners, as well as more low-key support from Israel, while Iran has the potential to mobilize the Shiite population across the Middle East. It would not be a surprise to see entire Middle East become the theater of a new proxy war between these two rivals.

In the coming period, the stance that Turkey takes will be crucially important. Although it has serious disagreements with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, Ankara wants to enjoy good relations with both. The new tension stipulates that Turkey must not take sides.

What’s more, it is certainly the right time for Turkey to move toward a “secular diplomacy,” back in line with its traditional foreign policy stance. Events over the past decade have bitterly shown that pursuing sectarian-based policies or running after neo-Ottoman dreams has cost the country dear. Turkey’s return to secular, republican diplomacy is needed more than ever as the Middle East enters new turbulence.

Opinion, Serkan Demirtaş,