While Turkey is once again preoccupied with its increasingly bizarre domestic squabbles, the already fragile situation in its neighbourhood is reaching a critical juncture. The outcome of the battle for Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, is likely to have long-lasting consequences, not only for Iraq but for the whole of the Middle East. Further away, escalating violence and chaos in Yemen and the instability in Libya have turned the wider region into a tinderbox.
The Iraqi military offensive to take back the Sunni stronghold from ISIS started on 2nd March. It was led by Shiite militias and aided by Iranian military advisors. For the first three weeks, the Americans stayed away, leaving Shiite forces to attack a Sunni area, fuelling fears that the sectarian fighting will turn into an ethnic, “Iran versus Iraqi Sunni” conflict as well. . In the words of Hassan Hassan, the co-author of a newly published “ISIS, Inside the Army of Terror”, regardless of the outcome, Tikrit would be a turning point for how the war will shape up in Iraq. Speaking in a European Council for Foreign Relations event in London earlier this week, Mr Hassan warned that the momentum for ISIS was still positive. Its grip was getting wider and tighter, as we have already seen in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen in addition to Iraq and Syria. More importantly, ISIS was now beginning to function like a government, filling the vacuum created by civil wars and failed states.
The continuing rise of extremist forces in the Middle East has forced the Obama administration into a significant shift in their Iraqi campaign. On Wednesday, President Obama gave the go ahead for American warplanes to start bombing ISIS positions in and around Tikrit.
Turkey was one of the first victims of the ISIS advance in Iraq. Several hours north of Tikrit, at the end of the strategic highway from Baghdad, lies another Sunni city, Mosul. It was in Mosul that 46 Turks and three Iraqis from the Turkish consulate were seized as hostages last year in June.
Pushing ISIS out of Tikrit is seen as a crucial first step towards retaking Mosul. Americans want to see Turkey on their side for such an operation but Turkey seems even more reluctant to get involved in a battle for Mosul than it did for Kobane. In an interview given to TIME magazine on Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made it clear that the Shiite militias fighting against ISIS were just as big a threat. He warned that the defeat of ISIS in Tikrit or Mosul by Shiite forces would bring on a full scale sectarian war.
The role of Iran and the vengeful nature of the Shiite militia actions in Tikrit harm Iraqi Kurds, the arch-enemies of ISIS, too. Talking to Amberin Zaman in Erbil, Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government expressed concern about “unregulated rise” of Shiite militias and sectarian tensions.
In a forum held in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Salih Muslim, the co-president of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) talked about the regional situation being very complex and difficult but carefully refrained from specifically referring to Turkey. However, another speaker on the panel, Dr. David Phillips of Columbia University has claimed that Turkey and ISIS were on the same side. He told a crowded Committee Room at the Parliament that Turkey needs to be reassessed for what it is today and not for what it was in the past or what others have wished it to be. “If Turkey would apply for NATO membership today, it would be rejected” he said.
Yet, Turkey’s concerns over recent developments in Iraq are perfectly legitimate. Dangers that afflict the region and unintended consequences of short-term solutions are far too grave. No one should blame Turkey for being cautious, but its earlier approach to Sunni Islamist forces in Syria and Iraq cast doubts over Turkey’s better calibrated stance today.
In coming weeks, the regional diplomacy is going to get even tougher for Turkey, particularly in relation to its neighbour Iran. While Turkey and its allies are worried about Iranian and Shiite influence in Iraq, Iran is taking a very hostile posture on the subject of another crisis-torn country, Yemen.
Turkey supports the Saudi-led operation against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told France 24 that Iran should leave Yemen immediately and Turkey might consider providing logistical support to the Saudi led strikes against Shiite Houthi rebels in the country.
In return, Iran is warning that violence could spread across the region.
I do not know if Turkey’s rulers still have an ambition to reshape the Middle East. One thing is for sure, the downward spiral of the region is already forcing Turkey to reshape its Middle East policies.
This post is also available in: Turkish