April 6, 2015
Editor-in-Chief of the Eastern department at Regnum
Translated by Kristina Rus
Moscow warns of “enormous responsibility” for the aggravation of contradictions between Sunnis and Shiites
After President Recep Erdogan called Iran’s desire to dominate in the region “intolerant”, described the conflict in Yemen as “sectarian” and called on Iran “to change its point of view,” which should be reflected in the withdrawal of its armed forces from Yemen, as well as in Syria and Iraq, it became clear that a political scandal is brewing in relations between Ankara and Tehran. The Chairman of the Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy of the Iranian parliament, Mansour Hakikat-pur urged Erdogan, who once called Iran his “second home”, first, “to take his words back and reconsider his behavior” as “Turkey itself is accused of supporting terrorist organizations such as ISIS”. And secondly, to refrain from his visit to Tehran, which was due in early April. Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the chargé d’affaires of Turkey for explanations of statements by the Turkish President.
Yemen became a bone of contention between neighbors. Iran’s Foreign Ministry described the air strikes on Yemen as a “war of aggression, which will only exacerbate the crisis in the country”, and Ankara has said it is ready to provide Saudi Arabia and its allies with “logistical support and cooperation of intelligence services”. But the chaotic situation in the Middle East is changing the balance of power in the region so rapidly that it is difficult to predict the intentions of the players, to reveal the true motivation and logic.
Trying to side in the Yemeni crisis with Riyadh, Ankara is actually trying, according to the “Independent”, to fit into the “unexpected alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel”, with which Turkey has a sour relationship. According to the British newspaper, “the energetic stimulus for bringing the Israelis and the Saudis together was the desire of president Barack Obama to negotiate on Iran’s nuclear program, and a limited cooperation between Washington and Tehran in the fight against the Islamic state.”
However, this “Turkish slalom” did not impress everyone. At the end of the summit of the League of the Arab States in Sharm El-Sheikh, Secretary General of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi announced about “the intervention of Israel, Turkey and Iran in the affairs of several countries and the Middle East region, which causes chaos”. That is the so-called “Arab alliance” formed in response to the Yemeni crisis, is trying to cut off Israel and Turkey from contacts with Saudi Arabia. According to available information, this is done under the influence of Egypt, which has good relations with Riyadh, but tense with Ankara.
Recall that the Turkish-Egyptian relations have deteriorated since the overthrow in July 2013 of the “Muslim Brotherhood” regime led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The then Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, strongly condemned the actions of the Egyptian military, and the two countries in August 2013 recalled their ambassadors “for consultations”. In this confusing situation the intermediary between Egypt and Turkey is Russia, which has good relations with both Cairo and Ankara. Not coincidentally, the Washington Post reported that at a meeting of Arab leaders in Sharm El-Sheikh, it was the Egyptian President al-Sisi, who was entrusted to deliver a message of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which contained the call to solve the Yemeni issue “peacefully, without outside interference”.
These are the main contours of the intricate system of alliances in the Middle East: Egypt, who does not want complications with Israel, plans to become an important ally of Saudi Arabia. Ankara quietly shifts even closer towards Moscow and away from Washington. And the latter establishes a tactical alliance with Tehran, which opposes Riyadh, whereas Israel, to judge by many signs, in the situation of deteriorating relations with the United States is preparing to establish more active contacts with Russia. In addition, says the Arab newspaper Al-Akhbar, after the Saudis supported the military coup in Cairo, the Turks made a decision to close the control center of the “Syrian Jihad”, led by the intelligence agents of Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh made it clear to Ankara that “the Syrian issue, even in the case of the fall of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, is part of Arab sphere of interest”. Then the current heirs of the Ottoman Empire, for many centuries ruling over the Syrian provinces and fighting over Syria with the rebellious Egyptians, have drawn huge political and military resources to this area. But in response, Turkey received the growing influence of Iran in Iraq, and the strengthening of the Kurdish underground on its territory and the emergence of the issue of the Kurdish state. This move the Turks frankly missed. And the Kurdish factor began to play a serious role in the political, socio-economic and public life of four countries – Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, and therefore, Ankara no longer has a controlling stake in the matter.
The current geopolitical puzzle in the Middle East is unique in the recent history of this region. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the major regional players. The first two are referred to as strategic partners of the West, Iran is not. Although it’s not so black and white, since Riyadh and Tehran together are objectively interested in weakening the influence of Ankara in the region. Together they can move the line of the Sunni-Shiite rift towards the Arab-Turkish confrontation, which has a long history and deep roots of the struggle for hegemony in the Middle East.
Moscow in the face of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, warned about the different implications of the first phase of this process. In his words, “those who are now, in fact, deliberately pushing towards “hot”, forceful aggravation of contradictions between Sunnis and Shiites, are taking on a huge responsibility,” and “we can’t allow the transformation of a given situation into an attempt to unleash the open conflict between the Arabs and Iran.” This is why the position of the Houthi rebels in Yemen has become more important outside rather than inside Yemen.
For now everything is showing that the the coalition forces, which some Russian experts have dubbed the “Arab NATO” will unlikely rush to “get sucked” into Yemen. There are many traps hidden on this board, which are able to threaten any strong geopolitical player. Therefore they will courteously allow the others to pass ahead in order to place the red flags on the account of the impatient, thereby setting the correct path. And although no one dares to predict the future developments in the Middle East, there is a consensus that we are in the beginning of something new and forceful.
I order to analyze the situation in Yemen, it is not sufficient to look at it from the point of view of a couple major players.
First we need to establish the parties affected, identify their national interests and the areas of intersection of those interests. Clearly the major players in this conflict are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Israel and USA.
In the context of the American mission to weaken Russia, Turkey becomes very important.
After Russia has been trying to pull Turkey to it’s side, this conflict may allow to pull Turkey away from Iran and Russia and back towards SA and USA.
In the context of Russia’s national interests, Turkey is a key player in relation to Central Asia and Southern Caucasus, which are the areas of intersection of Russia’s and Turkey’s interests, and a part of the “Great Turan” and the territorial ambitions of both Russia and Turkey. Therefore, history, geography, economic necessity and a disappointment in the European aspirations dictate that an integration project such as Eurasian Union can bring Russia, Turkey and their respective spheres of influence together and benefit the development of Caucasus and Central Asia based on their geographic location. Cooperation would bring economic benefits to all parties, while competition could be a cause of ethnic conflicts, wars and economic decline.
Therefore after Putin’s unexpected moves in Turkey, the Yemeni conflict draws a wedge between Turkey, Iran and Russia, who just wants everyone to get along and trade with it.
Turkey for the US and Europe is also the key to unlock the energy stores of Central Asia, which would allow to minimize Europe’s dependence on Russia’s energy, and weaken the ties between Europe (mainly Germany) and Russia, which is the biggest challenge to America’s dominance in the world.
Clearly America is desperate to torpedo Eurasian integration and the emergence of a “major Eurasian player”, dominated by Russia, but one cannot battle against geography forever, especially from across an ocean.