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Whither Muslim Solidarity? Will Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s Call for Unity Lead Somewhere?

By S. Mubashir Noor, New Age Islam

20 April 2016

Pan-Islamic unity, the kind preached by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul, is not a bridge too far if all parties check their egos at the door. Unfortunately, that does not seem likely anytime soon. To rework J.K Rowling’s prose, the problem with the Middle-East today is there are no heroes or villains. There is only power and those too self-absorbed to see past it.

The 13th OIC summit got underway on April 14 with Erdogan beseeching member states to close ranks in the face of wanton terrorism. “The more that we as Muslims, as Muslim countries, fall out with each other, the more the innocents who have put their hopes in us will be exposed to strife,” Erdogan pleaded in his keynote address. Great speech, but this team spirit abruptly faded after the summit’s closing communique “deplored Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the states of the region and its continued support for terrorism.”

Surely, the OIC understands that accusations and solidarity do not go together? Especially when Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) equally threaten Shia Iran by merit of their Takfiri ideology. The last thing Muslims need right now is for the OIC to turn into a Turko-Arab mouthpiece lionizing mainstream Sunnism to the exclusion of other sects. Moreover, for the already fractured Ummah to tackle militant jihadism as one, historical rifts need to be glossed over, not spoilt by stadium lights.

That said, this summit was never going to be smooth sailing. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had earlier criticized what he deemed the “four anti-Iranian resolutions” set to feature on the agenda, calling them against the “spirit of Islamic unity and is in the interests of the Zionist regime." Bad blood between Ankara and Cairo over the Egyptian army’s ouster of former president and Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohamed Morsi also kept the incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi away from Istanbul, who deputed his foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to pass on the OIC’s rotational, 3-year presidency to Turkey.

The Middle East also roils because regional partners in the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve against IS in Syria and Iraq are gunning to settle old scores under the pretence of coalition. Turko-Kurd tensions, for example, have again inflamed after a fragile 2013 truce ended three decades of civil war between Ankara and Kurd separatists. The Suruc suicide bombing last July targeting a Kurdish youth rally triggered countrywide reprisals by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that accused Ankara of complicity. Turkey responded by sending warplanes to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq.

Naturally, this renewed hostility spilled over into the fight against IS, manifesting through Turkey’s posture towards the most effective force battling Islamist militants in Syria today: the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara considers the YPG and PKK as two sides of the same coin and fumes over Washington’s strategy to keep arming Syrian Kurds in view of their victories against IS, denouncing its tolerance for “terrorist organizations.” On closer inspection, Ankara clearly fears that YPG’s success in Syria will embolden its own Kurdish minority to press for autonomy.

Turkey’s opposition to Syria’s Baathist regime also stems from the country’s long battle with Kurdish separatism. Specifically, Ankara would prefer that President Bashar al-Assad not exit in chaos, leaving behind a power vacuum that Kurd nationalists could exploit for self-rule in northern Syria, thereby fuelling an already out-of-control PKK. Still, bilateral relations were not always so bleak. After Ankara coerced former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad into returning fugitive PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998, a decade of cooperation followed. Charged rhetoric this year, however, harkens back to the dark days before the Adana Accords.

The age-old proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran also keeps the Middle East in turmoil, but there was never any risk of open conflict so long as Washington remained at daggers drawn with Iran and policed the region. Then everything changed last July with the P5+1-Iran nuclear deal that forecast a thaw in Tehran-West ties. This cued a newfound belligerence in Riyadh amid the belief that the Saudis could no longer count on Washington to keep the ayatollahs in check.

It does not surprise that both sides have used the Syrian civil war to expand influence. Riyadh arms and aids militias fighting to overthrow the Assad regime, including the Free Syrian Army and allegedly Al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat Al-Nusra and even IS, while Tehran remote–controls Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias buttressing the Baathist government besides dispatching thousands of “military advisors” to Damascus. Things came to a head in February with Riyadh’s announcement to send ground troops to Syria, a move Tehran called tantamount to “violating international law.” This is what Muslim solidarity looks like today, and it is a terrible look.

S. Mubashir Noor is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan


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