Turkey is right to rise above sectarianism

Turkey’s policy to rise above sectarianism will prove to be a bulwark against the cycle of violence in the Middle East.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu looks through binoculars at Syria from a Turkish military base at the border with Syria [Reuters]
Turkish prime minister looks through binoculars at Syria from a Turkish military base at the border with Syria [Reuters]

The ongoing cycle of conflict and instability is deepening rapidly as a result of the overlap between local faultlines and regional rivalries. The sectarian divisions highlighted by the crises in Syria and Iraq are becoming markers of the conflicts in these countries. As identity-based politics gains ground, sectarian belonging is becoming a major element in the motivation and mobilisation of combatants.

At the same time, the contest for regional domination, characterised by a tense Iran-Saudi relationship, is another contributor to the instability. To view this contest in sectarian terms not only impedes efforts to find a regional solution to the crisis, but it also feeds the proxy wars.

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With two of its southern neighbours embroiled in protracted conflicts and suffering from the collapse of state structures, Turkey is working hard to grapple with this challenge.

Engagement policy

Turkey is under pressure to pursue a proactive engagement policy vis-a-vis Iraq and Syria, without being engulfed by the very same sectarian undercurrents.

While developing alliances with other actors with common interests, Turkey must stay outside alignments, especially if they are formed around sectarian markers.

Turkey has expended enormous efforts to shield itself from external security threats and avoid entanglements in the spiralling conflict. Nonetheless, the growing salience of sectarian-based political choices is putting pressure on Ankara’s policy of staying above sectarian divisions.

Since the onset of the Arab uprisings, Turkey’s regional policy has been based on several principles, namely, gradual change over radical ruptures, the rejection of outside intervention and the prevention of sectarian divisions. As such, it has warned against “a new Cold War in the Middle East”, especially since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis.

Since the onset of the Arab uprisings, Turkey based its regional policy on several principles, namely, gradual change over radical ruptures, the rejection of outside intervention and the prevention of sectarian divisions.


The international community’s inability to oversee a peaceful transition and end the violence, which in time spilled-over to Iraq, has placed sectarian identities at the centre of political rivalries and military conflicts.

Following the rapid advance of ISIL in Iraq and other parts of the region and new conflicts emerging in places like Yemen, more countries are being pulled into the cycle of violence.

Sectarian motives

Another major trigger of the sectarian divisions has been Iran’s policy, both in their reaction to perceived Saudi advances and in their quest for regional dominance by extending support to Shia groups throughout the region.

Whether that support is due to defensive or offensive motivations is less relevant, as the Shia armed groups backed by Iran have become an inherent part of the pattern of radicalisation and conflict in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and increasingly in Yemen.

Following the fall of Mosul to ISIL in June 2014 as a result of the disintegration of the Iraqi army, sectarian politics has taken a new turn in Iraq. The predominantly Shia popular mobilisation units are playing a major part in the fight against ISIL.

Given its success in rapidly organising and arming these militias, and providing military assistance to the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces, Iran appears to be gaining the upper hand on the ground.

The difficulties faced by other groups in creating similar military structures and the perceived rise of Iranian and Shia influence has deepened the mainstream Sunni feeling of marginalisation. This sense of Sunni marginalisation is also felt by Syrians caught up in the protracted conflict, as well as Sunnis in Lebanon, who watch Hezbollah increasingly dominate Lebanese politics.

In this process, there is a strong expectation among different groups for Turkey to play a larger leadership role. Nonetheless, Turkey has deliberately avoided taking a narrow sectarian approach, and struggled to emphasise national unity over fragmentation and political processes over militarisation.

Rouhani greets Erdogan in Tehran [AP] Rouhani greets Erdogan in Tehran [AP] 

Turkey calls for the inclusion of Sunnis into national political processes when they are marginalised, rather than capitalising on their grievances as a way to feed sectarian divisions.

Regional alliances

Due to this cautious policy, it is even possible to observe the widening of the gap between the expectations of Sunni groups and the level of Turkey’s engagement. Turkey continues to call for moderation, while many disenfranchised Sunnis seek refuge in extremist forces.

Iran’s visibility in the fight against ISIL in such a way as to converge with the US position, as well as prospects for the resolution of the nuclear file, have fuelled speculations for a broader US-Iran strategic consensus in the region.

This development has heightened the feeling of insecurity in Gulf countries, which view the growth of Iranian influence as an existential threat. While seeking to recalibrate Saudi foreign policy, King Salman has been working to launch a response to the “Iranian threat”. The operations in Yemen are reflective of this quest for reorientation.

It is obvious Turkey sees areas of overlapping interest with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni actors in regional realignments. In order to obtain the flexibility it needs to cope with the deepening regional instability, it is not reasonable to maintain the cold winds that had for some time characterised Ankara-Riyadh relations. Turkey has also nurtured a working relationship with Qatar. They have converging positions in the pacification of the conflict in Syria, as well as other hot spots in the region.

Nonetheless, speaking of a solid “Sunni alliance” among them is a far-fetched idea. Although they might have put aside their differences in Syria, it is hard to talk about a Saudi-Qatari-Turkish alliance on the ground. It is important to remember that they maintain differences in their policies towards Egypt and other regional issues.

Regional rivalries

In working to improve ties with Riyadh for a myriad of reasons, Ankara will not reduce this preference to “joining the Sunni axis”, as is commonly suggested. Eventually, Ankara’s choices for new relationships will be geared towards enhancing its room for manoeuvre, as it continues its policy of shunning a broad-based anti-Iranian (or anti-Shia) alliance.

Turkey would rather maintain its position as arbiter and pacifier in regional rivalries, because unchecked polarisation – be it sectarian or geopolitical – poses the greatest menace to the region. This role, however, will not preclude Turkey from power-balancing against Iran’s perceived encroachments in the region, just as it did not refrain from challenging some Saudi regional policies.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Tehran after his very vocal criticism of Iranian policies underscores the extent to which Turkey is keen to sustain that unique position in the region.

Policymakers in Ankara are conscious of the growing spectre of sectarian politics in the region. They are equally aware of – and have warned against – the damaging effects of sectarian policies. So far, Turkey has resisted the temptation to expand its regional influence by capitalising on the calls of disenfranchised groups for assistance, despite having many “natural allies” in the conflict zones, based on sectarian or ethnic affinity.

A Middle East with a “sectarian Turkey” would certainly have been a nastier place than it is today. Ankara’s cautious policy, which seeks to avoid sectarianism, fragmentation and militarisation, and its role as arbiter and pacifier in regional rivalries will remain one of the key bulwarks against the cycle of violence ravaging the Middle East.

Saban Kardas is the president of Middle East Strategic Research Center and a faculty member at the Department of International Relations at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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