Turkey hell-bent on becoming supreme Sunni power
Using Islam as a tool in the Arab world, Erdogan is cast as a modern sultan
Migrants clamber on to a dinghy to sail for the Greek island of Chios from the western Turkish coastal town of Cesme on Wednesday. Greece and Bulgaria complain that Turkey does nothing to halt the flow into their countries of refugees. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters
In celebration of the parliamentary election victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ankara arrested three dozen opposition figures and mounted air strikes against Kurdish rebels, heralding four more years of home rule by iron fist and aggressive regional intervention that has led to war and a tsunami of refugees across the region and Europe.
With a new mandate in hand, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu are unlikely to halt their support for Syrian insurgents seeking to replace the embattled secular government of president Bashar al-Assad with a Sunni-dominated regime rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, the AKP’s Arab equivalent and ideological mentor.
In pursuit of this objective Ankara has funnelled fighters, funds and weapons to groups of all persuasions, including Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. IS has also been given freedom to organise in Turkey’s cities and towns and to develop ties with Turkey’s intelligence agencies, ties of use to the AKP regime in pursuit of regional goals.
Davutoglu’s previous “zero problems with neighbours” policy was, during the 2011 Arab Spring, transformed into “no friends in the neighbourhood”. Having failed as a secular power to assert its influence in the Arab world, Turkey, under the AKP, has turned to Islam as the vehicle for achieving this end.
Ankara has promoted regime change in the expectation the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s sole organised opposition movement, would win elections and ultimately recognise Turkey as the supreme Sunni power – in effect making Erdogan a 21st-century sultan.
Near neighbours Syria and Iraq suffer civil conflict due to Ankara’s policy of transiting insurgents to both countries and hosting training bases for fighters claiming allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, then defecting to IS and Nusra. Although it has no support in Syria, Turkey also continues to promote the Brotherhood-dominated expatriate Syrian National Coalition, which rejects compromise with Assad. Turkey’s air strikes on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq have caused alarm in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region, which has been overwhelmed by Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Greece and Bulgaria complain Turkey does nothing to halt the flow into their countries of refugees, many of whom have also settled in Turkey and nearby Lebanon and Jordan. Beirut and Amman blame Turkey for the war and the refugees and face destabilisation from home-grown Sunni warriors activated by the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Assad’s main regional ally, Shia Iran, has been transformed into Turkey’s antagonist in a contest characterised by the Sunni Saudis as a struggle for regional hegemony between Islam’s two main sects. Tehran could pay Ankara back for its drive to bring down Assad by providing support for Turkey’s rebellious Kurds and discontented Alevis, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiism. These minorities count for more than 20 per cent of Turkey’s population.
Egypt is furious over Erdogan’s adoption of the call by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for the reinstatement of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and hosting of fugitive Brotherhood members who seek to establish a parliament-in-exile to rival Egypt’s new people’s assembly.
Ankara has fostered the expatriate Egyptian Revolutionary Council, which has called on Egyptian army officers and soldiers to revolt against the government under president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Dar al-Ifta, the chief body issuing religious edicts in Cairo, has called the exiles’ actions “treason” and says the council is on the same side as IS.
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Even though it is risking European alienation, Ankara is unlikely to stem the tide of refugees from Turkey in spite of promises of money, visas and accelerated EU accession. Smuggling is big business on the coast and Turks do not want refugees to settle.
The presence of two million refugees, most of whom live in cities and compete for jobs with Turks, has created resentment.