Terrorist bombs killed another 72 people in Iraq today, on a day considered holy by the Islamic Shia religion. This is a further sign of bloody sectarian strife boiling over after the withdrawal of US troops last December.
It also presages a more significant trend that could make 2012 go down in history as the start of a seismic shift in the political makeup of the wider Islamic Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan. The shift would be as fundamental as in 1919, after the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. At that time, Britain and France divided the Ottoman territories between them and consolidated their hold on others with the British getting an upper hand.
After the World War II, the US became the dominant power with some help from Britain and France. It propped up regimes in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran (before the 1979 revolution).
But the Iraq war frittered away US influence and the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt reduced its relevance as a power-broker or kingmaker in the Middle East. Its Israeli ally, though still an overwhelming military power is less useful as a bolster of US influence because of its diplomatic isolation. Its other ally, Saudi Arabia, which is also armed to the teeth by the US, has few admirers because of its Salafi and Wahabi forms of puritanical Islam.
The new political winners seem to be Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran. Turkey, though not an Arab or conservative Islamic country, is moving quickly to build strategic friendships with Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Because of its growing economic strength, it is being received with more warmth than the France and Britain, which have always been distrusted as former colonial powers, and the US, whose former dictatorial friends are in disgrace. Turkey may not have strong enough legs to sustain the momentum but for the West to turn back the clock will be difficult.
The US-backed military and secular elites of Turkey lost power to a moderate Islamic regime in 2002, which now feels confident enough to snub the US even through it remains a vital pillar of NATO. A former friend of Israel involved in deep military cooperation, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan became a virulent critic in 2010 when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks aboard a Turkish ship trying to deliver relief supplies to Gaza’s Palestinians.
The most significant Turkish influence is in Northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish zone, which needs a new protector to replace the US. It also needs transit for its oil and other exports through Turkey and its streets already bustle with Turkish businesses. Discreetly, it is helping Ankara to stamp out fellow Kurds who plot attacks from its territory to “liberate” Turkey’s Kurds.
If such developments continue, Iraq could be divided by a de facto economic partition between the north dependent on Turkey and the south dependent on Iran. Both are oil rich areas of Iraq. The partition would not be de jure in the sense of legal recognition but it could be a “green line” marking the Turkish and Iranian zones of economic and military influence.
This economic partition would spread beyond Iraq, especially if the new Egypt partners more closely with Turkey because Islamic influence on the streets has made the US less palatable than it used to be to Mubarak’s regime.
The fly in this ointment for Turkey is Syria, with which it has the longest border. Erdogan was a close friend of Bashar al-Assad but is currently providing safe haven and perhaps advisory support to rebels fighting to depose Assad. Iran, on the other hand, is helping Assad, who belongs to an Islamic Alawite sect similar to the Shia faith.
Through Assad, Teheran has long helped the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both despised by Israel. Turkey does not have an openly anti-Iranian position on this help but is strongly opposed to Teheran acquiring a nuclear weapon. However, it believes Iran’s mullahs when they say they want nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes, such as medicine and electricity.
There are recent indications that Ankara and Teheran will not allow their differences over Syria or nuclear issues to come in the way of mutual understandings to carve out zones of influence in the region. The US and European Union may rattle sabers and sanctions but this dynamic will be hard to turn back because the West’s local allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are unloved in the region. So there is a power vacuum waiting to be filled.