Turkey: Hesitant in Fighting ISIL, Decisive in Fighting Houthis
By Serkan Demirtas
Along with the unrest in Syria and Libya, there are two other big ongoing regional armed conflicts in the Middle East.
One of them is taking place in Iraq, where the Iranian-backed Shiite Iraqi army is fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) around the Tikrit region. U.S. fighters have joined the military offensive through an aerial campaign to help the Iraqi army re-take Tikrit from ISIL, allowing it to prepare for a bigger operation to seize the control of Mosul, a strategic town in Iraq.
The second major conflict is the Saudi Arabia-led military operation in Yemen to halt the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have taken control of more than half of the country and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to leave the capital Sanaa. The offensive is actively backed by Gulf countries - as well as Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Pakistan - and is politically supported by the United States.
The conflict in Yemen is generally described as a proxy war between Shiite Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and is believed to be a part of a broader confrontation between the two heavyweights to increase their areas of influence.
An analysis of the Turkish government’s position on these two regional armed conflicts depicts a clear contradiction in Turkey’s regional priorities, and an important deviation from its traditional foreign policy of peaceful solutions to international problems.
Here are some problematic points about the Turkish position vis-a-vis the above-mentioned regional issues:
- A contradiction stems from Turkey’s hesitancy to take part in the international coalition, composed of around 60 countries, tasked to deal with the ISIL problem, which could one day stir up serious troubles for Turkey. Meanwhile, it jumped to support the Saudi-led military offensive into Yemen and pledged both logistical and intelligence assistance for the Arab coalition.
- It is certainly correct to underline that these are two different issues. A country can take perfectly different positions based on its interests. However, looking from this perspective, it can also be argued that Turkey should have made the exact opposite decision, meaning that it should have taken part in the anti-ISIL campaign and recommended an immediate halt to violence in Yemen in order to begin dialogue for a peaceful solution.
- The current understanding could lead to justifications among those who criticize the Turkish government for pursuing sectarian policies in the region. This can be summarized in one sentence: Turkey is not a part of the fight against radical Sunni jihadists, but instead it is part of the fight against the Shiite Houthi movement.
- Turkey’s strong position in Yemen is also ruining its traditional, balance-based foreign policy. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harshly lashed out at Iran as the only responsible force for major regional troubles, accusing the neighboring country of “trying to dominate the region.” “Can this be allowed?
This has begun to annoy us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. It is really not tolerable and Iran must see this,” he said.
- Erdoğan’s words are a clear sign of hostility toward Iran and are obviously dangerous. His statement unveils a new regional alliance of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, as well as (indirectly) Egypt, an alliance that can easily be described as the “Sunni bloc.” This new policy is one of the consequences of Erdoğan’s important visit to Saudi Arabia on March 2, during which he held talks with the new Saudi King Salman. The picture that Turkey gives today is approval of the Saudi domain in the Middle East, and a clear opposition to Iran.