WASHINGTON – Turkey intends to spread its more moderate form of Sunni Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring as opposed to the more conservative Sunni Wahhabi version of Islam from Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s approach is evolving despite turmoil throughout the Middle East that continues to see Saudi Arabia engaged in a proxy war in Syria. The Saudis’ aim is not just to overthrow the government of Shiite Alawite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also to remove the influence of Shiite Iran in the region.
In contrast, Turkey intends to improve its relationship with Shiite Iran, despite opposition to Tehran’s backing of Assad.
But Assad likely will withstand the insurgency and remain in power, and Turkey, therefore, will need Iran’s help to repair the rupture with Syria. Assad declared he is running for re-election in June, but none of his opponents are seen as a serious challenge to 44 years of Assad family rule.
As WND recently reported, Turkey and Iran – despite their differences over Syria – see each other as helping build and in some cases rebuild their influence in the region as a substitute for what appears to be the crumbling influence of Saudi Arabia among its Arab allies.
Middle East expert Walid Shoebat sees Turkey as ready to revisit its relationship with Iran and lessen its competition with Tehran for regional dominance.
“The leaderships of both nations have come to realize that striving to secure an undisputed leadership in the Middle East was pointless,” Shoebat said. “Iran’s ambitions in the region will then succumb to Turkish dominance.”
Shoebat said Turkey-Iran cooperation helps explain Washington’s perspective on the future of the Middle East. The U.S., he said, believes the Sunni-Shiite strife in the region will eventually “acquire a content conforming to the geopolitical interests of the U.S … and is why Washington refrained from resorting to plans to total regime dismantling in Syria.”
“The U.S. needed a region equally treacherous both for Turkey and Iran,” Shoebat said.
Shoebat said the Saudi kingdom has been the catalyst for the two countries to work more closely together despite their own Sunni-Shiite divisions.
Some regional experts, including Shoebat, even believe that the increasingly Islamic Turkish government ultimately wants to recreate the Ottoman Empire and become the center of a more moderate Muslim caliphate in the Arab world.
“Soon, I estimate within a decade to a decade and a half, we will see a Sultan emerge in Turkey, a Caliph and a Mahdi,” Shoebat said. “They will argue that if Rome has a Vicar of Christ, why not for Islam a Vicar for Muhammad?”
Turkey is being seen as an emerging substitute for the conservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam that Saudi Arabia has exported and spawned with the creation of al-Qaida and its affiliates.
The terror groups — financed by Saudi Arabia, including by the royal family itself in recent years — have become stronger and are seeking to create their own caliphates governed under a more strict form of Islamic law, or Shariah.
While the Saudis say they are opposed to the spread of al-Qaida, the financing continues in an effort to keep the terror network out of the Saudi kingdom.
But the Saudis are seeing increasing problems beyond concerns about blowback from al-Qaida on the kingdom itself.
Riyadh also opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled Egypt for a year before the Saudis backed a military effort for its overthrow. In turn, the Brotherhood also became an issue with Turkey, which supports it.
The Saudis oppose the Brotherhood because it similarly seeks to create a caliphate in the Saudi kingdom and wants to oust the monarchy.
Until recently, all of the Gulf Arab countries ruled by Sunni monarchies looked to Saudi Arabia as their leader, until they began to split over the issue of support for the Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, for example, recently pulled their ambassadors out of Qatar, which supports the Brotherhood and maintains some semblance of a relationship with Iran, the Saudi royal family’s mortal Islamic enemy.
Despite the semblance of unity, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was to provide the united front of Sunni Arab monarchies, has begun to split.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, the GCC is comprised of Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
Former Saudi intelligence chief and royal family member Prince Turki al-Faisal has admitted that the rift within the GCC is serious despite a recent agreement to end a security dispute with Qatar.
“The most dangerous thing that is facing our countries today is this new rift in our relations,” said Turki, who is a brother of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Turki sees Iran and Turkey as exploiting the rift for what he sees as destabilization of the Middle East, although implied is the concern of the splintering GCC members veering more toward Turkey.
Given the renewed cooperation between Iran and Turkey and the increasingly close ties some of the GCC members have with them, Turki has every reason to be concerned about what could become a major shift of influence toward the more moderate Sunni-Shiite wings of Islam.