Turkey Warns against Sunni-Shiite Civil War in Mideast

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu Ahmet Davutoglu warned Wednesday in Tehran against a Sunni-Shiite civil war in the Middle East, which he said was being encouraged by some (unnamed) forces.

Among the flashpoints in the area has been the confrontation between Iran and the United States at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iran conducted a 10-day military exercise there, warning of its ability to close off the waterway to world trade, thus depriving it of one-sixth of petroleum supplies.

But an unstated element in this Iran-US confrontation is the US backing for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both Sunni powers, against Iran. Bahrain’s citizen population is 58% Shiite, after tens of thousands of Saudis, Pakistanis and other Sunnis were granted citizenship by the Sunni monarch of the islands. The Bahrain monarchy has cracked down hard on the protest movement seeking a constitutional monarchy. Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to help the Bahrain king, Sheikh Hamad b. Isa Al Khalifah. The United States has a naval base in Manama that serves as the HQ of the Fifth Fleet, which is charged with keeping the oil flowing from the Persian Gulf.

Shiite Crescent

Shiite Crescent

This weekend, there were rallies against the Bahrain government in the Shiite hinterland, and one woman was killed by a teargas cannister.

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu got where he is by advocating a policy in Turkey of “good relations with neighbors.” It was this policy that doubled Turkish trade with the Middle East after 2002, and which led to the reemergence of Turkey as an influential country in the region, after long decades in which it had turned almost exclusively toward Europe.

Turkey is a Sunni-majority country and the current Justice and Development Party government has strong Sunni Muslim constituencies, including the Naqshbandi Sufi order, which is important in Iraq and Syria. But the government has striven, despite significant tensions, for correct relations with Iran. Turkey imports natural gas from Iran and the two countries did more than $15 billion in trade with one another in 2011, up 55% over the previous year. Turkey, like South Korea, is seeking an exemption from upcoming US sanctions on sales of petroleum and gas via Iran’s central bank. Its Halkbank handles India’s purchase of Iranian petroleum.

Sunni-Shiite tensions have flared in Iraq. On Wednesday, a series of bombs went off in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, killing 23 persons; the bombers clearly want to reignite Iraq’s sectarian civil war. At the same time, a political crisis continues to unfold. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi of involvement in terrorist attacks, one of them aiming to assassinate al-Maliki itself. Al-Hashimi fled to Kurdistan and sought to have any legal proceedings against him take place there. An Iraqi court has instead ordered him to Baghdad. He is likely to flee the country rather than face al-Maliki- appointed judges. Al-Maliki’s charges against Hashimi have caused the largely Sunni Iraqiya Party to suspend its participation in his government of national unity. Al-Maliki blames Saudi influence for Sunni Arab violence against Shiites in Iraq.

There is also a latent Sunni-Shiite dimension to the ongoing crisis in Syria. On Wednesday, some 26 persons died across the country as security forces continued to snipe at demonstrators. Some 19 of those deaths occurred in Homs, where there were big anti-government rallies. The ruling Baath Party is dominated at its upper echelons by members of the heterodox Shiite sect of the Allawites, whereas most of the urban centers that have come out against the regime are Sunni in character, and the Muslim Brotherhood plays a significant role in organizing them.

Turkey has taken a strong stand against government repression of the demonstrators, and has come out strongly against the Allawite president Bashar al-Asad. The Justice and Development Party’s Sunni constituencies in Anatolia may be among the drivers of this stance in favor of the Syrian National Council. It represents and about-face; the party came to power in 2002 determined to repair relations with Damascus, in which objective it largely had succeeded before last spring’s uprising. Turkey had done some $2 bn. a year in trade with Syria and was working on a free trade zone with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

Davutoglu is likely attempting to mediate between the US and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other. Unlike the former, Turkey is not spoiling for a fight. Davutoglu’s brilliant strategy of expanding trade with the Middle East has been deeply inconvenienced by the troubles in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s truck trade with the Arab world went through Syria. Al-Arabiya reports in Arabic that Turkey is planning to ship the trucks to the Egyptian port of Alexandria, from which they can take their goods anywhere in the Arab world. But the shipping costs will obviously reduce profits.

Turkish trade policy, which depends on harmonious relations among neighbors, impels it to attempt to tamp down sectarian conflict. Iran and Saudi Arabia, as oil states, do not absolutely require regional trade for their prosperity, and so they have the independence to conduct a struggle with one another if they (unwisely) so choose.

Whatever Davutoglu’s specific mission, which has not been revealed, his general emphasis on tamping down tensions couldn’t be more essential.

19 Responses

  1. Bahrain 58% shia? I’m not sure where you got that number from. The BH Government doesn’t release figures relating to Sunni and Shia, so it is impossible to tell what the real number is. GoB sources indicated that it’s probably around 60-65…but who really knows. A little surprised you left out Kuwait which has quite a sizeable and very influential shia population, not to mention some sectarian issues that sprang up there in 2011.

    Maybe it could be the Turks who serve to calm this (once again) growing sectarianism. I am not hopeful unfortunately, sunni-shia issues in the gulf are as a deteriorating once again quite rapidly.

  2. 15 billion dollars worth of vital trade goes up in smoke because Iran wants nuclear power?

  3. Of course, manufacturing animosity between A and B religious branches is the best (cheapest) way to destabilize a society.You infiltrate branch A, detonate a bomb in its temple and sign it as “Present from B.” The war between A and B will be self sustainable. If not, you can occasionally ad a bit of extra fuel into the fire.
    It’s worth noticing that up till thirty years or so nobody had heard of of fights between Sunnis and Shiites!

  4. Why does your Shiite Crescent go through the northern, Kurdish/Sunni section of Iraq, and avoid the south-eastern area around Basra?

  5. Talking about this will not help. What do you all think Turkey should do to stop this mindless bloodbath? Erdogan was the first sunni leader to go and visit the tomb of Hz Ali. Do you have some ideas?

  6. “It’s worth noticing that up till thirty years or so nobody had heard of of fights between Sunnis and Shiites!”

    Are you kidding? At one time, some Shi’a sects were considered apostates (and not merely heretics) by Sunnis. Al-Ghazali, among others, taught that the shedding of their blood was permissible because their commitment to an infallible imam over the Qur’an denied the basis of the social order of Islamic society. Granted, this was with reference to the Ismailis (founders of a Shi’ite Caliphate in Egypt), who are not the same as today’s Twelver Shi’a. Still, it was Salah al-Din’s mission in life to overthrow Shi’ite rule in Egypt at the same time that he was fighting the Crusaders. Periods of peace between Sunnis and Shi’ites have been relatively rare, with some exceptions.

  7. “It’s worth noticing that up till thirty years or so nobody had heard of of fights between Sunnis and Shiites!”

    Oh my God! And the UFOs are mixed Martian Jupitorian blood, right?

    Juan Cole, relations between Turkey and Iran are at their worst point since at least the 1990s, maybe even the late 1980s [when Turkey helped Saddam against Khomeini].

    Naturally the business community is freaked out and demanding reduced tensions between Israel, Turkey, Syria, Iran, GCC, Egypt. Turkey is one of the most pro business countries on the planet, with low marginal tax rates, comparatively little regulation and powerful business lobbies.

  8. This smacks of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis manifesting itself as the Shia Crescent. People have been trembling about this for years. I’ve never gotten a reasonable answer about the existence of any inherent animosity between the two traditions, other than what can whipped-up by whomever for their own reasons (and there do seem to plenty of involved whomevers).

    I once saw a graphic/map representing the density of adherents, aside from political boundaries. Seems like there was a concentration of Schia throughout the coastal areas, including very much Saudi Arabia. Seems like that graphic included foreign workers.

  9. Interesting piece but I wouldn’t choose “brilliant” to describe Davutoglu’s foreign policy.

    Turkey has regional aspirations and it’s pursuing national self-interest, but the government’s policy often takes cynical and calculating turns. We shouldn’t be so soon to forget – or forgive – Ankara’s despicable decision to cozy up to Assad and turn a blind eye to that regime’s brutal nature. It’s only now that Turkey realizes that the Syrian government is hellbent on murdering as many civilians as it can in order to crush domestic dissent. What’s more, I don’t see how Turkey’s recent massacre against innocent civilians during its latest incursion into northern Iraq comports with Davutoglu’s holier-than-thou declarations.

    It would be less hypocritical if Davutoglu & Erdogan actually practiced at home what they preach abroad. The latest is the ongoing clampdown against Turkish journalists who dare to question the regime or its allies within the religious establishment. So much for respect for democratic freedoms.

    link to nytimes.com

    Also, check out this telling piece in Hurriyet on the leadership’s targeting of its favorite bete noire. Israel-bashing always makes for good politics in the region and unfortunately, Netanyahu’s wrong-headed policies have made it all too easy for the Turkish leadership to play the Israel card for all it’s worth. Unfortunate. These two countries have a long history of friendship and mutual interests.


    • What does it tell us all that this neocon is bashing the one Moslem country that is really trying to prevent a regional war? You won’t be happy, sir, until all Moslems live under safe military dictators whose armies are completely dependent on the Pentagon. I bet you never had a problem with the serial mass murderer Suharto, but a big problem with the alleged Communist Sukarno.

      And the NY Times has spread plenty of lies about independent Moslem leaders over the decades. Could you guys wait till the blood from your Iraq crimes wears off before starting anew on Iran and Turkey?

  10. learn so much here. Will of course have to read several tim.es. Professor Cole in the documentary “No end in Sight” individuals inferred that the goal of the Bush administration (Feith, Wolfowitz others) in Iraq was to destabilize. Hence to few troops, protect the oil sites while allowing Iraqi treasures to be looted, Bremer disbanding the Iraqi army etc etc. I have heard that same opinion from a CPT member Peggy Gish who was in Iraq before the invasion and after collecting documentation on torture in Abu Gharib etc. She has spent close to six years in Iraq since the invasion. She has said that many Iraqi people believe that the mistakes made were not mistakes at all. That the goal was to destabilize. Hillary Flynt Leverett has also indicated the same thing. Is that the goal of the Us to destabilize the region?

    Where is Ahamad Chalabi? I know my questions are a bit basic but hope you will take the time to answer. Share your site with many.

    Also it is so odd that say for instance that the Diane Rehm show has not yet had Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett on about Iran. (they did a show on Iran today and had the warmongering Mcheal Rubin on and yesterday they had David “axis of evil” Frum on to discuss the Iowan caucuses. Why do you think the MSM seems opposed to having guest on who were right about Iraq and the questionable WMD intelligence on their programs instead of the people who were deadly wrong about Iraq and have over the last 8 years been promotoing more confronations with Iran?

    Is it true that some in the Bush administration blocked you from being on MSM programs before the invasion? Could such a boycott be going on when it comes to the fact based Leveretts?

    • No one is allowed on network programs to push back against the AIPAC lies being told about Iran. Just further evidence that what we see is very scripted. That’s why Prof. Cole will not be seen on Meet the Press.

  11. Aw, lets give the middle east a break! last thing they need is another war. The popular uprising theme is a threat from us to the mid-east dictators, to insure they continue to behave.

  12. It seems to me that Iraq is where this fault line is likely to break. If Iraq comes apart at the seams — as appears to be happening — the situation could easily draw in Saudi Arabia — the Sunni Arab population will be in desperate need of protection with the Shiite government controlling the armed forces — and then Iran. It would also mean that Kurdistan’s nominal independence will become official (with no Iraq to be a part of), creating a second border war with the Sunni Arab rump Iraq and ratcheting up tensions with Turkey and Iran. I can imagine all sorts of mess.

  13. I am very concerned that the U.S. policy toward the violence in Syria neglects the danger of sparking a sectarian bloodbath against the Allawites and their close allies the Christians, who I gather almost universally favor the Assad government. I read the other day that Iraqi Christians, having fled from Iraq to the safety of Syria after the U.S. overthrow of Saddam, may now have to move on from there too, along with the ancient Christian population of Syria, to somewhere else… Haven’t we observed how much harm the U.S. and other outsiders do when we intervene in favor of one population group in favor of another in any given middle eastern country? In Iraq, the oppressed Shia got in the drivers seat and started to oppress the formerly dominant Sunni… In Egypt, Copts will regret, I fear, ever joining the anti-Mubarak revolution and maybe so will the pro-Western Muslim youth. It’s ironic that a country which is so full of christians (the US) is helping to ruin the lives of their co-religionists in the Middle East and doesn’t seem to know or care…

  14. Apparently, Turkey has imported more jet fuel in the last three weeks than they do over an average three months. This factoid comes from a shipping conference in London this week.

    • It’s a pain when I’m tempted to leave a source-link, so I don’t. In the case of these fuel shipments, it’d be worthwhile seeing the substantiation and whether there wasn’t, as I’d expect, some reasonable explanation for them.

  15. I join the commenters questioning the accuracy of the green shaded Shiite Crescent map. The Shi’ites in Iraq, by all prior accounts that I have heard are further South in the T-E basin and have described the area of Iraqi shaded as heavily Sunni Kurd (except perhaps right at the Iranian border). Iran is heavily Shiite is a much wider area, and I’ve near thought of Syria as a particular stronghold of Shi’ites even if there are a fair number in Lebanon.

    In short, the map appears quite deceptive unless the Crescent is meant to illustrate something else, and it isn’t obvious what that something else would be.

    This historical inferences suggested by the Shiite Crescent map (suggesting a link to the historical Kassites and in general to historical mountain herder populations of the mountains adjacent to the Fertile Crescent, and a unity of Kurds and Shi’ites) would seem to be wrong and misleading.

    • It is just amateurish map making. I grabbed it off the web from a wiki. If you have time to critique you have time to revise it and post it. Sheesh

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