US-Turkish Sunni convergence
Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq inadvertently became a booster to the world’s Shiites and their leader Iran. “The Iraq War transferred power in [Iraq] from its ruling Sunni minority to its disenfranchised Shiite majority. With Shiites in power, Iraq moved closer to Iran,” rightly observed Vali Nasr, a well-respected Iranian-American academic and author of the best-selling 2006 book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future.”
The Bush administration never openly acknowledged that its invasion of Iraq gave an incredible boost to Iran, the United States and Israel’s worst enemy in the world, but the current administration of President Barack Obama did. Obama and his team felt a need to reset a balance of the deranged Sunni-Shiite relationship. Washington was quick to grasp that the Arab Spring was a Sunni Awakening or effectively meant the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The tool to reset the Sunni-Shiite ties had emerged.
The Ennahda Party, the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the recent elections in that country. Later in Egypt, the Justice and Freedom Party – created by the Muslim Brotherhood – came first in the opening round of parliamentary polls, winning about 40 percent of votes.
In Syria, if or when President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite and a more liberal Shia sect, is toppled, it is certain that the Sunni majority to be led by the local Muslim Brotherhood with take up the new government.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood is not the best option in Western eyes, the U.S. does not see the Brotherhood as a dangerous or radical entity; it just is the reality of the neighborhood.
Now enter Turkey. Although Turks ethnically are not Arabs, Turkey’s political transformation, which could be seen as a first example in the Arab Spring, came several years earlier. But the Turkish experience was peaceful and democratic through elections that consistently bolstered the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in subsequent polls.
The Tunisian Ennahda has enormous respect for the AK Party and its leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Islamists in Egypt, where Erdoğan visited in September, also respect the AK Party. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood receives open political support from Turkish leaders.
Although in the past few years there was criticism Turkey was turning its back to the West, under present circumstances Turkey and the U.S. are emerging as ideal partners in the creation of a new Middle East. Washington could not have relied on the Sunni but extremely radical and non-democratic Saudi Arabia for such a role. Now it can rely on the long-time NATO partner Turkey, which has a Sunni majority but also is democratic.
Turkey also did something cementing its commitment to the West in September. It agreed to host special X-band radar on its territory for NATO’s planned missile shield system against potential ballistic missile attacks from rogue states. The decision immediately worsened ties with Iran but paved the way for a favorable U.S. response, allowing for the sale of three strong attack helicopters to be used against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and heralding closer defense cooperation.
A short time ago, when Turkey was a member of the United Nations Security Council, it tried to save Iran from additional economic sanctions because of its nuclear program, and last year it insisted that NATO drop any references to Iran in its decision for the missile defense shield. But now, probably inadvertently, Turkey and Iran are ending up on two opposite sides of the Arab Spring conflict in the Middle East. This is mainly a result of the Sunni convergence between Ankara and Washington.
But Turks are not Arabs after all, and it remains to be seen if the Turkish influence remains in place for the foreseeable future.