Arabs caught between Turkish and Iranian pincers

Arabs caught between Turkish and Iranian pincers

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Turkish troops move along a road in northern Syria amid clashes with Assad regime forces, February, 2020. (AFP)

The Iranian regime’s scheme to infiltrate its neighbors and expand its influence across the region is no longer the only one posing a threat to Arab countries. Turkey’s threat to Middle Eastern security and stability has also now become a tangible reality due to its actions in several countries. This Arab vulnerability is, in part, due to the absence of a unified project that could resist the current challenges and secure mutual interests.

Has the Iranian expansionist scheme to infiltrate and extend its influence across the Arab world been adopted by Turkey? Or is the Turkish scheme, which embraces a more moderate interpretation of Islam, different from that of the Iranian scheme? Could the same policies used to confront the Iranian scheme be used to confront the Turkish one? Or is a different approach required that is consistent with Turkey’s tenets and strategies and the challenges it creates for regional security?

The Iranian scheme has focused on spreading the totalitarian regime’s theocratic influence across Arab countries, centered primarily on the doctrine of “exporting the revolution.” It has relied heavily on the security weaknesses that have inflicted many Arab countries. The Iranian regime and its proxies also use sectarianism to foment internal disputes. It has established militia-style political and military entities within the Arab countries it has targeted. These proxy militias are more loyal to Iran than to their own governments, using slogans about “resistance” and “rejecting US hegemony.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish scheme — despite the secular nature of the Turkish constitution — is closely tied with political Islam and its advocates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which operates within the Arab world. 

Turkey was known for its Kemalism, high economic growth rates, welfare and a foreign policy based on “zero problems” with other states. But it has now undergone dramatic changes, shunning the aforementioned and embroiling itself in internal conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya, resulting in tense relations with most of the Arabian Gulf states. Turkey sponsors and incites certain political groups, recently clearly announcing that it intends to revive the Ottoman era and reclaim its leading position in the Islamic world. This will apparently happen via Turkey selling political Islam to others, while adopting soft secularism at home. This duality — or hypocrisy — has enabled Turkey to infiltrate nations across the Arab world on a scale even more extensive than that of Iran. While the Iranian scheme attracts, for the most part, Shiite minorities scattered across Arab countries who are supportive of Wilayat Al-Faqih, the Turkish scheme targets the Sunni majority.

The Iranian and Turkish schemes both have elements of soft and hard power in regard to their infiltration and penetration into regional countries. While Iran controls armed militias in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, Turkey has militias in Syria and maintains a military presence in northern Iraq, as well as being involved in an internal dispute in Libya. While Iran recruited mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria, Turkey has recruited mercenaries from Syria, catapulting them into the Libyan civil unrest.

While Iran has so far been unable to establish a permanent military base in Syria despite maintaining an intensive military presence there, we find that Turkey has established a host of military bases, extending across the Arabian Gulf to western Libya. In Qatar, Turkey set up the Tariq ibn Ziyad military base in 2015 and the Khalid ibn Al-Walid base in 2020. In Somalia, it established a base in Mogadishu in 2017. In Iraq, Turkey has up to 15 military bases, with the main one being the Baishqa base on the outskirts of Mosul. 

In Syria, Turkey has transformed the observation posts it created under the Idlib agreement signed with Russia in March into military bases in Jarabulus, Azaz, Afrin, and Al-Bab. This is in addition to the Murak base in central Syria, which is the farthest of these bases from the Syrian-Turkish border. In Libya, meanwhile, Turkey began operating from Al-Watiya airbase in the west of the country in May.

When it comes to soft power, we find that Turkey has penetrated Arab societies in a way that is far more intensive and pervasive than Iran, which confines itself to the Shiite minority. In the past, the Arabs blundered by helping the Ottomans establish and extend their rule. This is being repeated today, with the promotion and dubbing and translation of Turkish- language, Ottoman-inspired soap operas and movies into Arabic. These play on the heartstrings of Arabs and stir their Islamic sentiments. Turkish cultural centers have spread across the Arab world to such an extent that regional fashion trends are now largely inspired by the latest style in Istanbul.

All this Arab passion for the Turkish model happened before the Turkish infiltration strategy was exposed. Regarding the Iranian model, the same thing happened in Arab countries during the tenures of so-called reformist Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, though on a smaller scale.

Both the Iranian and Turkish schemes have their own economic expansionist aspirations. Iran seeks to control Syria’s mining resources and to monopolize reconstruction contracts in the country, as well as to dominate the energy sector in Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkey is exploiting Qatar’s Arab boycott to export its products there and take advantage of its financial support to shore up its currency. Turkey has also taken advantage of Libya’s restive situation, signing a maritime border demarcation deal whereby it could seize some Libyan oil and gas resources.

The Turkish scheme — despite the secular nature of the Turkish constitution — is closely tied with political Islam.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The Turkish scheme is as dangerous as the Iranian one, with both violating the sovereignty of Arab countries and forming military and political entities loyal to Ankara and Tehran. The Turkish scheme seeks to establish a colonial empire based on a neo-Ottoman ideology, which blends colonial Ottoman history with a secular civilian state, while also supporting political Islam — constituting a contradictory model. It is necessary for Arab countries to work to abort the Turkish scheme before it expands further and enters a more dangerous and cruel phase, as is the case with the Iranian scheme, which expanded because of the region’s failure to repel it early on.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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