Friday, October 23, 2009

Axis of… Power: Emerging Alliances in the Islamic World

    Friday, October 23, 2009   1 comment

By Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
October 19, 2009

War is very destructive. However, despite the human and economic costs, war also creates new opportunities and ends oppressive political and administrative stagnation. The human cost of the
Iraq war could be mitigated by the economic and political return of the reshuffling of the cards in the Middle East. There are ample indications that a new alliance is emerging that will change the balance of power in the Islamic world (and the world over) for a very long time.
When the Bush Administration officials failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was originally the stated pretext for war, they argued that the war practically removed a tyrant and that should legitimatize the war. Many members of the Administration further contended that a new era of democracy is ushered in. They promised an era of freedom and peace that will marginalize the extremists and empower the moderates of the region. Six years later, Iraq is still a war zone, Iran (an element of the axis of evil (or the exemplar of extremism)) is still getting stronger, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (the moderates) are still abusing the rights of their citizens, the Israelis and the Palestinians stopped talking peace, and certainly no emerging
democracies in the Middle East are taking their cues from the Iraqi model.
Here is what is happening and what will be happening in the next 25 years and beyond.

Turkey is realigning itself to play a major role in the politics of the Middle East. Turkish leaders
mediated a series of indirect negotiations between the Syrians and the Israelis, they criticized Egypt and Israel for their treatment of Gazans before and after the Gaza War, they mediated and resolved an extradition conflict between Syria and Iraq in September, and they offered to help the West deal with Iran (they even offered to host the first direct talks between Iran and the G-5+1).

Moreover, during the last three weeks alone, Turkey held a high profile meeting with the Syrian leadership and signed a plethora of security, economic, and cultural agreements. Just last week the first fruits of these agreements were cultivated: Passport-holding Turkish citizens no longer need an entry visa to visit Syria and vice versa, Syrian citizens who carry valid passports of any kind can travel to Turkey without an entry visa. Days later, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visited Baghdad and signed no less than 50 agreements with the Iraqi government. The most significant development is yet to take place (as this piece is being written). Upon his return from New York where he spoke on behalf of the Islamic world in the UN general Assembly, the Turkish leader announced that he "will make a trip to Iran towards the end of October... We will discuss regional problems, including this (nuclear) one," Turkey's Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying.

It seems that neither the extremists nor the moderates (as defined by the Bush Administration) have fulfilled the expectations of the West. Instead, pragmatism is about to transform the region and create a new axis of power right in the heart of the Islamic world. This new axis will consist of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq (and possibly Lebanon). This alliance makes sense: Iran needs Turkey to ease Western pressure and to provide it with a path to European markets where it will sell its natural gas and petroleum. Syria and Iraq need Turkey to secure the flow of water. Turkey needs Syria, Iraq, and Iran to secure its borders and defeat the Kurdish separatists. Moreover, Turkey needs Iran and Iraq to power its emerging economy with reliable and inexpensive energy.

For Turkey, this new alliance is either a Plan B that is a good substitute should its bid to join the European Union fails or a trump card that Turkey will use to goad the Europeans vis-à-vis its membership in the EU.

Even if Turkey were to join the EU, this alliance could only offer it more leverage over other members of the EU. First, Turkey will be a reliable gateway between Europe and Asia. Second, Turkey will be the “middleman” (or shall we say middle state) between the EU and the Islamic world. Third, Turkey will be a reliable conduit of Middle Eastern energy to starving European markets.

The natural gas shortage that threatened some EU states when Russia shut off gas supplies in 2008, has convinced the EU to consider alternatives to Russia’s energy. Iran, who has the second largest natural gas reserve in the world, is a very reasonable option that will supply Europe and enrich Turkey in the process.
In addition to the economic benefits, this emerging axis makes sense socially and culturally.
Although the form of Islam practiced in Turkey is Sunni Islam, Turkey is not appreciative of the conservative Islam that Saudi Arabia and its allies espouse. Iran, being a Shi`ite country, will be willing to ease sectarian tension by embracing the Sunni Islam that is practiced in Turkey rather than that of Saudi Arabia.
In terms of demographics, should this new alliance materialize, the center of gravity of the Islamic world will shift to this axis. After all, when considering that the population of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria combined will approach or exceed 200 million people, the economic benefits—given the concentration of natural resources—are positively significant.
The Iraq-Iran relations are not good; they are spectacular when considering that these two neighbors had fought a war that lasted eight years and that killed nearly two million people on both sides. If the U.S. did not invade and remove Saddam from power and replace him with a Shi`ite-run government, it would have taken the two countries generations before normalizing relations. This war, however, instantaneously made strong allies out of bitter foes.

The blueprint for this axis of power is further enhanced by existing warm relationships. Ties between Iran and Turkey are very strong. For instance, the most recent figures show that the total volume of mutual commercial relations surpasses 10 billion dollars, of which Iran's share of exports is six billion dollars. Additionally, Iran is the second largest exporter of oil and gas to Turkey. Turkey enjoys utmost importance as a transit route for Iran and Europe. Iran and Turkey can act as complimentary economies. Turkey can import raw material from Iran and export industrial goods to the country. Iran and Turkey are important members of two regional cooperation organizations, the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and the Developing Eight (D-8), comprising the eight most populous Muslim countries of the world. If Turkey joins the European Union, it can work as a bridge between the Union, the ECO and D-8, a step that will further enhance Turkey's status among its neighboring countries, including Iran.

There is no need to highlight the reliable and strong relationship between Iran and Syria given that Syria was the single Arab state most supportive of Iran during its war with Iraq. The Syrian-Iranian bilateral relations are in fact the strongest when compared to the ties between any combinations of the other three states.
Should these predictions materialize, how should the world consider and characterize this new axis?
Despite the drum-beating for war against Iran under the pretext of world peace and security, the records of these countries do not raise serious alarm, especially the current Turkish regime. Together, they are the most stable countries in the region. They are, to some degree, nationalists and are eager to preserve their borders as they are (no expansion). The ruling regimes are fairly vested in the welfare of their people and each of these countries realize that it will be in its best interest to preserve these ties. Moreover, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are more popular in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim public than any other Arab or Muslim leader.

Turkey’s vibrant democracy and temperate social conservatism will interact with Iran’s ordered social conservatism and muffled democracy to produce a new model for Islamic governance. Together, they will influence the Syrians and Iraqis to produce a pluralistic, stable, and powerful block that can be emulated by their neighbors. The axis has huge potential and can be harnessed to produce stability and peace in a very volatile region.

The elements needed for stability and growth are nearly immeasurable (compared to their Arab neighbors): the members states together constitute a highly educated population that is 2/3 the size of the U.S. population with direct access to 2/3 of the world’s most sought after natural resources, like oil (oil reserve estimates for 2009 is 745.998 bb in the Middle East vs. 275.657 bb in the rest of the world).

Given the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity within and without each of these countries (Arab, Kurd, Turk, Turkic, Persian; Sunni, Shi`ite, Zoroastrian, Christian…), only a pluralistic democracy that emphasizes and promotes responsible citizenry instead of zealous nationalism and civility instead of exclusion can emerge should this alliance actually materialize.

This axis is, indeed, an axis of power. But it is a constructive and stabilizing power given the level of self-reliance and pride these peoples take in developing their respective countries. In short, this axis is the needed one to stabilize the region and stimulate positive political change in the region without Western direct interference; a region that has seen enough war, enough bloodshed, and enough abuse of human rights. President Obama should find in these Turkish leaders reliable allies to advance his agenda of peace and mutual respect with the Islamic world.

*Dr. Ahmed E. Souaiaia teaches course in International Studies, Islamic studies, and law at the University of Iowa; he is the author of the book, Contesting Justice.

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  1. Superb analysis by prof. Souaiaia!

    Adis Duderija

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