By Nuray Mert
The so-called Sunni powers have not been able to adapt to the changing political atmosphere in the Middle East, and Qatar and Turkey have resisted to the end. Finally, they are all “reluctant interventionalists” now, with Qatar participating in the military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and with Turkey’s president declaring, “Turkey will do whatever is needed in the anti-ISIL fight.” Needless to say, the aforementioned “anti-interventionalism” is confined to the limits of being against the Western intervention against ISIL. Otherwise, Western interventionalism was most “wanted” against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Until 2012, the game was the West and its allies against Iran and its allies in the region, with al-Assad of Syria as the final target. Then, things started to change after the “Arab Spring” turned sour and the rise of Sunni radicalism killed the hopes of a democratic transition in Syria. Beforehand, the Muslim Brotherhood had failed to deliver good governance (let alone democratization) and paved the way to a military coup in Egypt. Libya turned into a battleground for Islamist militias that led to the murder of the U.S. ambassador right before the presidential election in the U.S. Finally, it turned into a stage for the so-called “moderate Islamist” political actors who were expected to ensure stability by replacing authoritarian regimes, which failed dramatically, not only in terms of governance, but also in terms of their conduct with radicalism. Meanwhile, the “Sunni allies of the West” overestimated their role and tended to stage their own proxy wars for regional hegemony.
It is true that Western powers have also turned a blind eye to the support of radicals for a long time, in the name of fighting al-Assad and Iranian hegemony on a regional scale. Nevertheless, they needed to review their politics after the rise of Islamic radicalism proved to be, perhaps, a bigger threat than Iran and its allies. Yet, it did not stop regional actors from supporting their proxies, no matter how radical and violent they were. Turkey has come first in insisting on continuing to engage in murky relations with fighting groups in Iraq and Syria for the sake of its own plans for the region. In fact, Turkey felt alarmed by the change of Western policy, but in a different way, it became more ambitious, since the government began to be concerned with losing its grip (or “imagined grip”) on the region. After the collapse of its policy in Syria, the Turkish government shifted its attention to the “Sunni spaces” in Syria and Iraq and that is why ISIL has even been defined as an expression of “Sunni anger and resistance against the sectarian politics” of former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki. In short, Turkey never ceased to dream of regional hegemony by enforcing “Sunni politics” and invested a lot of hope in its contacts with Sunni Turkmens, Sunni radicals and conservative/Islamist Kurds at times. Alas, it has all failed and Turkey has ended up with allying with “Western interventionalists.”
Now, the Turkish president and “his government” (as he calls it) will face up with the difficulty of selling Turkey’s new position. The radical supporters of the governing party have already started to translate the Turkish position as they wish it to be. After all, it is a more general problem with Muslim countries that they enforce “anti-Westernism and all sorts of conspiracy theories” and Islamist discourses at home, despite their pragmatic alliance with Western powers. Turkey has become so as well in just the last decade with its “conservative” government, which has effectively become “Islamist” recently.
The real problem with Muslim countries (and indeed, with Western powers until very recently) is relying on pragmatic policies and alliances, which has culminated in ultimate hypocrisy and failure. I do not know how it will proceed after the formation of the coalition of the West and “reluctant interventionalists,” but it will be a real challenge for both sides.