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WASHINGTON – Turkey is undertaking a “soft” approach to spreading its influence well beyond its own borders in an effort to rein in Iran’s growing role among the Sunni governments of the Gulf Arab countries, according to a report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
Such an effort has the blessing of Saudi Arabia, the United States and European countries, and that could bode well for Ankara’s perpetual effort to gain acceptance into the European Union – a struggle that’s been ongoing for more than a decade.
Being the next door neighbor to Syria, Turkey has been in the vanguard of Western efforts to handle the flow of Syrian refugees, while at the same time allowing the Syrian opposition to manage its war efforts against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In so doing, it has become a main channel for financing and providing weapons for use by the Syrian opposition. Such assistance has come primarily from Saudi Arabia and especially Qatar, which seeks to extend its own influence in the region. The effort to topple the al-Assad regime, which is Shi’ite Alawite, is due to its alliance with Shi’ite Iran.
Ironically, the areas from the Middle East to Central Asia encompass what once was Turkey’s historic Ottoman Empire area of influence. It also has been the same region that once encompassed the Persian Empire. The alliance between the then-Ottoman empire and Egypt, something which modern-day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to repeat, gave the Turks a land route to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea before the Suez Canal was constructed.
History is repeating itself, to a point. To check Iran’s spread of influence, Turkey once again needs to go beyond its own orders and confront areas where Iran’s influence is greatest. This not only includes improving relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq but in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. As the open intelligence group Stratfor points out, Turkey’s spread into these bodies of water where Iran’s influence is greatest is backed by U.S. and allied naval power which has had the effect of blunting Iran’s power projection.
But the Iranians aren’t sitting idly. They are pushing their own naval boundaries into the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, where it is undertaking anti-piracy operations, into the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal and into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Until the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, the Iranians weren’t permitted to sail ships into the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal. That’s now changed with the leadership of Egypt in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Iran helps finance.
If Iran’s ally, Syria, were to fall, the Iranians could sail ships directly to neighboring Lebanon and continue supplying its proxy, the Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel regard as a terrorist group.
In terms of projecting its naval power, Iran intends to place ships off the U.S. coast and into Latin America in response to the presence of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf.
Being Sunni, however, Turkey can make inroads into Sunni Muslim Somalia and Yemen, which gives Turkey the ability to check Iranian influence in the Arabian Sea off the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden and on up into the Red Sea.
Ankara has been very active in providing humanitarian and infrastructure development especially in Somalia.
Turkey’s potential naval power projection is expected to create a boom in its shipbuilding industry. Until now, Ankara has limited its naval activities to backing NATO efforts and engaging in anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden.
It could open the prospect of Turkey setting up ports in Somalia and Yemen. These ports may become necessary as the U.S. considers reducing its role in the Gulf of Aden while Turkey considers filling that potential void.
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