A new and strange battle for domination of the Islamic world is being fought in the Middle East. On one side is Shiite Iran, on the other side is Sunni Turkey and the battlefield is Syria. Why is this an important battle and what will it mean for the geopolitics of the area?
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, two Middle Eastern dictators, want to form a united front against their neighbor Turkey, a NATO ally, which on this issue seems to have the silent backing of the US Government. Both Iran and Turkey would like to establish their supremacy in the area and they are using a troubled Syria as their battlefield to establish their goals.
As Israel watches intently on the sidelines, the situation becomes even more volatile and dangerous when you throw Hamas and Hezbollah, two avowed enemies of Israel and USA into the mix. Hamas recently moved their offices from Damascus to Qatar, after Al-Assad was furious with their leadership for refusing to support the Assad regime against the popular uprising that began earlier this year. Hamas leaders had refrained from taking sides in the conflict, claiming that the movement’s policy was to avoid interfering with the internal affairs of Arab countries, despite the fact that they outwardly supported the downfall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Ghaddafi in Libya.
On the other hand, Al-Assad has the full support of the leadership of Hezbollah, another avowed enemy of Israel and the USA. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made it very clear in a speech in Beirut, Lebanon that they “stand by the Syrian regime, a regime of resistance against Israel.” Based on the demands and the goals of the anti-government forces in Syria, it is now certain that in a post- Assad Syria, there will be no room for Hamas, Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. This makes the matter even more complicated and serious.
How does Turkey view the events in Syria, their neighbor in the South? There are two scenarios the government in Turkey is trying to avoid. One would be for the events in Syria to get completely out of hand and cause the country to fall into total chaos. The other would be for the internal situation in Syria to prepare the ground for outside intervention by others. Despite all this, the Government of Turkey has allowed anti-Assad forces to operate from bases in Turkish territories and allowed the formation of a de-facto government-in-exile in Istanbul (Syrian National Council) led by a long time Syrian dissident.
Under either scenario, the political and economic relationships between Turkey and Syria may catastrophically fail and may cause a religious war in the area among various sects of Islam, particularly between the Sunnis and the Shiites. In order to avoid either scenario, the Ankara government advised Syria in two main areas. One was for the Assad regime to immediately bring about democratic reforms in Syria, stop the heavy handed response to the demonstrations, give voice to all sectors of Syrian society and hold fair and honest elections immediately. The other was the declaration of the Turkish Government against further killings of the Syrian population by Assad’s military forces led by his brother, Maher. Beyond political and economic ties between the two countries, there are deep historical and humanitarian ties which force the Turkish Government not to remain silent.
Iran Press News reported that Khamenei of Iran, in response to the Turkish declaration, sent a personal letter to Assad of Syria stating that “the response to Turkey’s bullying must be the strengthening of ties and strong unity between Iran and Syria”. According to Khamenei, Shiite dominated Iran has beaten back Saudi Arabia’s domination of the Muslims world-wide, and it will not allow Turkey to fill the leadership void with Sunnis within the Islamic world. He further stressed that Iran and Syria should strengthen relations within the Shiite realm, which includes Iraq and Lebanon. With the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by the end of this year, matters in the area may get even more complicated.
How does Iran view the events in Syria? Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, Syria has been Iran’s strongest ally in the area. During the long Iran-Iraq war, Syria supported Iran and went as far as letting Iranian forces use Syrian territory for their military operations. Iran influences day to day events in Lebanon using Hezbollah to do their work. Geographically, Syria which now stands between the Mediterranean and Iran is Iran’s gateway to Lebanon. Iran would like to control both Syria and Lebanon and have direct and free access to port facilities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Iranian regime calls the demonstrators in Syria “armed terrorists supported by CIA, Mossad and Saudi Arabia”.
The situation gets even more complicated when one considers the long term goals of Iran and Turkey. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has followed a path to dominate the area. They support Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamic Jihad and other Islamic groups who fight the Americans in Pakistan. The Mullahs who rule Iran would like to see a Middle East dominated by Islamic rule, heavily influenced by the extremely conservative Shiite beliefs of the Iranian rulers. On the other hand, the Islamic leaning and popularly elected government of Turkey led by Tayyip Erdogan, which is presently enjoying an unprecedented economic boom would like to see the previously Ottoman dominated areas of the Middle East and North Africa come under Sunni leaning Islamic regimes under the influence of Turkey.
The battle ground to prove either domination will be Syria. The swords have been drawn, territories are marked and the battlefield is now being prepared. When the situation will explode and what the final results will be is the big question and so far no one seems to have concrete answers. A lot may depend on when Iran finally gets its hands on a nuclear weapon and threatens to use it for Iran’s advantage. Israel will not remain silent for long and other countries in the area may join in the fray with their own nuclear weapons. It is the Middle East after all. Unpredictable! Explosive! Enigmatic!
Currently a member of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board, Tarik Ayasun has given many years of community service to various organizations.